The naked mole rat isn’t a particularly handsome devil, but there’s more to life than being pretty--like living ten times longer than other mammals your size, withstanding extremely harsh conditions without breaking a sweat, or beating cancer. The naked mole rat does all of these things without really trying, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that British researchers are sequencing the un-cuddly rodent’s genome looking for clues to its longevity and fortitude.
The initial draft of the genome is already complete and has been put online for other researchers to access in hopes that biologists and geneticists can unravel the mystery behind the naked mole rat’s unique hardiness. For instance, naked mole rats live to be about 30 (common rats live to about age four) and they do so in harsh underground environments where oxygen is scarce.They also show resistance to a number of diseases, namely cancer. There have been no recorded naked mole rat deaths attributed to cancer in the decades of study devoted to the creatures, and that makes its genome a rich hunting ground for researchers trying to pinpoint the genetic hallmarks of cancer--or the mechanisms for cancer resistance.
But that’s not the only unique and interesting quirk that researchers would like to explore in the naked mole rat’s genome. Previous research has shown that they feel no pain in their skin and that they are surprisingly resistant to strokes (they are already imbued with a low metabolic rate that allows them to live on less oxygen, but this physical trait could go beyond simple metabolism).
In other words the naked mole rat, while not completely indestructible (although acid doesn’t seem to burn them, so there’s another superhero-like quality they possess), are survivors from whom we can hopefully learn a few genetic tricks. This genome blueprint is a start. If it turns out that naked mole rats are genetically predisposed to stop speeding bullets, you’ll read about it here.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.