How Naked Mole Rats Survive Without Oxygen For 18 Minutes

Apr 22, 2017 06:56 AM EDT

The bizarre-looking naked mole rat may be the butt of jokes, but its strangeness includes a host of seemingly miraculous health "superpowers" like not getting too old and being practically impervious to cancer.

Well, add another superpower to the mix. Apparently, the naked mole rat can live without oxygen for a whopping 18 minutes.

According to a report from New Scientist, researchers placed the naked mole rat in a chamber that contains just 5 percent of oxygen. This amount is alarmingly low with less than a quarter of what's usually found in the air. Neither mice nor humans can survive such conditions, but it's no problem for naked mole rats. In fact, the researchers even stopped the experiment after five hours.

So they upped the ante, placing the creatures in a chamber that contains pure nitrogen and no oxygen at all. Amazingly, the naked mole rats survived for 18 minutes. While they ceased breathing after a few minutes, their hearts continued to beat and they revived when placed back into normal conditions with air.

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Without oxygen, mice will die in around a minute and humans will probably die in less than ten minutes.

So what is it about naked mole rats that allow them the luxury - or more likely, the necessity - of surviving in low and no oxygen conditions?

Part of the reason why they are able to cope is their bodies minimize the need for it. These little creatures stay at the same temperature as their burrows so as not to burn too much energy heating their bodies as well as very low metabolism. Their metabolism is also a bit different in that they use the simple sugar fructose.

"You and me and all the other animals in the world use a sugar called glucose, and glucose is really good," lead author Thomas Park of University of Illinois at Chicago explained to Gizmodo. "The downside in glucose is that it requires the use of oxygen, so when you take oxygen away, the glucose pathway is kind of screwed. What the naked mole rat can do is up-regulate its fructose pathway when it goes into oxygen deprivation. It's not as effective as the glucose pathway, but the trick is, it works without oxygen."

When the oxygen around them are low, naked mole rats release sugar fructose into the bloodstream, which is able to keep critical systems in the body functioning.

Call it another trick of the naked mole rats. When it comes down to it, this may be the species holding the key to near immortality.

The study was published in the journal Science.

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