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African Rodent Captures The Eye Of Science

November 29, 2009

A resilient rodent from the horn of Africa has begun charming scientists around the world.  Resistant to cancer and aging better than Sean Connery, the remarkable, if somewhat unattractive, naked mole rat is proving to be a biological wonder and a new source of scientific inquiry.

“They really are from Mars, I think,” Thomas Park, biological sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Associated Press.

Able to live up to 30 years, these 3 to 4 inch East African critters are being used to study everything from strokes to cancer to aging in hopes that scientists might find new insights into human health complications.

At the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, researcher Rochelle Buffenstein is responsible for tending a 1,500-member-strong mole rat colony that makes its abode in series of large clear tanks connected by long transparent tubes.  Though the San Antonio colony is by far the largest in the U.S., a number of other universities around the country have begun founding their own mole rat communities for research purposes. 

Buffenstein is particularly concerned with keeping track of the longevity of these tiny, blind, buck-toothed rodents who exhibit a form of intense social organization, known as eusociality, that is extremely rare in mammals.

Despite significant levels of inbreeding within their colonies “” a phenomenon that usually tends to weaken genetic integrity and thus decrease longevity “” naked mole rats can live to be 30 years old, or more than 15 times longer than the average lab mouse.

Yet another bizarre and intriguing biological feature of these creatures is their inability to experience pain.  Researchers can place a drop of corrosive acid on their transparent pinkish skin and they don’t even react.  This, according to scientists, is because they lack a specific neurotransmitter known as substance P that is necessary for feeling the sensation of pain.

Park and his colleague John Larson will release a report in next month’s issue of the science journal NeuroReport in which they discuss the remarkable ability of the naked mole rat to survive oxygen deprivation for over a half an hour without suffering brain damage and the potential implications this phenomenon for studies on human strokes.

And perhaps most the most significant and intriguing oddity displayed by these rodents is their complete resistance to cancer. 

In a research report published in October, researchers speculated that their immunity to cancer may be attributed to a particular gene known as p16 which prevents cells from growing together in crowded clusters.

Less than 20 years ago, Buffenstein says that only she and one other research facility in the U.S. were studying mole rats in labs.  Now, research departments around the country are scrambling to establish their own colonies, and Buffenstein expects them to be as common as lab rats by the year 2020.

Vera Gorbunova, biology professor at the University of Rochester in New York, hopes to establish her own colony by early next summer.

“We shouldn’t just be looking where it’s easy to look,” she says. “We should be looking in species where we can find something … instead of studying mice, which live relatively short lives.”

Regarding the surprisingly long amount of time that it took for these exceptional creatures to get the scientific attention they deserve, Buffenstein said, “[i]t takes time for people to realize that an animal has got a lot going for it.”

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