How Burmese pythons grow and shrink after eating

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The changes that occur to the anatomy and physiology of a Burmese python is controlled by a series of alterations in gene expression, scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Colorado, and the University of Alabama report in a new study.

Their research, published earlier this month in the journal Physiological Genomics, analyzed the changes that occur to the snake species in the days after it first ingests a meal, and as the authors wrote, their work could shed new light on how vertebrates control organ growth and function.

Even though the Burmese python’s has a distinct body shape when compared to other vertebrates (including humans), its organs function in much the same way. As a result, findings from snakes can be adapted to better understand how the human body works, and might lead to the discovery of new ways to treat a variety of diseases, the authors explained in a statement.

They added that their study is the first to associate the extreme changes of the Burmese python’s body, and its intestines in particular, to changes in gene expression. Furthermore, they claimed that their paper is the first to demonstrate just how rapidly those genetic changes occurred.

Potential model for studying intestinal cancer

Three days after a Burmese python’s eats, its organs expand to nearly twice their original size, and the creature’s metabolism and digestive processes increase at least 10-fold. Ten days after eating, the meal is fully digested and the changes to the snake’s body are reversed, allowing it to return to normal size and its physiology to stabilize.

For the purposes of their study, the study authors focused on the small intestine, which doubles in mass and nutrient-absorption rate during the digestive process. They found that at least 2,000 genes change in expression after the snake eats, with most of those changing within the first six hours after the python first ingested its food.

Among the genetic changes that take place during the digestive process is those involved with the structure and nutrient absorption in the intestines, along with those that play a role in cell division and cell death. The patterns of gene expression matched and frequently preceded physiological changes in the intestines, then returned to their original state 10 days after eating.

This indicates “a tight association between differential gene expression and the rapid and cyclic physiological remodeling of the intestine,” the authors explained. Furthermore, the study found that some of the changing genes are also involved in intestinal cancer, suggesting that the creature could be “a valuable model for studying the interactions of metabolism with the regulation of cell division/death” and genetic signaling relevant to cancer.


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