The Burmese python (Python molurus) can go for a whole year without eating. And once they squeeze and swallow their prey, their hearts nearly double in size within days, and their metabolism speeds up fortyfold.
This incredibly expanding snake heart is similar to how highly trained athletes grow huge, strong hearts.
Now, a new study shows that this heart-ballooning in snakes is triggered by fatty acid molecules circulating in their bloodstream after they gorge.
The new findings could help researchers develop drugs to treat our own hearts – by boosting performance after a heart attack or stroke or, on the other hand, reducing dangerous kinds of heart growth caused by certain diseases.
Over the last 5 years, a team led by Leslie Leinwand from the University of Colorado, Boulder studied one of the largest snakes in the world, from the jungles of Southeast Asia. The Burmese python goes for months without eating, and then downs a deer.
To accommodate the sudden rush of sugars, fats, and proteins, ScienceNOW explains, the body goes into overdrive, and its heart expands over 40%, presumably to pump greater volumes of blood throughout its body.
"When a python eats, something extraordinary happens,” Leinwand says. “Its metabolism increases by more than fortyfold and the size of its organs increase significantly in mass by building new tissue, which is broken back down during the digestion process."
They found that cardiac growth is triggered by 3 specific fatty acids and triglycerides (found in natural fats and oils) circulating in python plasma.
- One day after eating, the amount of triglycerides increased more than fiftyfold in the blood, which made it “effectively milky."
- With this much fatty acid in their blood, there was no evidence of fat deposits on the heart, which led them to notice the increased activity of an enzyme called superoxide dismutase, a well-known ‘cardio-protective’ enzyme.
- Dropping these fatty acids – myristic, palmitic, and palmitoleic acids – onto heart cells of pythons and mice (yes, mice, how poetic) actually stimulated chemical pathways linked to beneficial heart growth.
- Then they injected fasting pythons and mice with either (a) ‘fed python’ blood plasma or (b) a fatty acid mixture they created to mimic plasma. Snakes and mice from both experimental groups showed increased heart mass and good cardiac health.
The next step is to test the fatty acid cocktail on mice with heart problems, like high blood pressure, to see if it would hike up cardiac function.
Some cardiac diseases cause heart muscle to thicken, decreasing chamber size and heart function because the organ must work harder to pump blood. But heart enlargement from exercise, Leinwand explains, is beneficial.
To reverse the effects of such diseases, drugs could promote good processes as a surrogate for very vigorous exercise. According to Leinwand in an interview with SmartPlanet’s Melanie D.G. Kaplan earlier this year, it would be like giving people a little bit of Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong.
Boulder-based Hiberna Corp., which develops drugs based on animals with extreme metabolic regulation, signed an exclusive agreement licensing this tech.
Except during the winter, Agamemnon Fang (neither Greek nor a viper, discuss) eats a gourmet jumbo rat about once a month.
The study was published in Science today.
Images: Burmese python / Stephen Secor