Science Scope

The naked mole rat's genome is exposed on the Internet

Posting in Cancer

Biologists sequenced the genome of the cancer-free, pain-free, super-human naked mole rat to find clues to longevity and cancer prevention.

Most people look at the disgustingly, terrifyingly ugly mole rat and think they have nothing of which to be jealous.

Well, think again.

Naked mole rats never get cancer (at least not one has in the decades that scientists have studied them), live forever (okay, ten times longer than other rodents its size), experience little or no pain through their skin, cannot be burned by acid, are resistant to strokes and live in harsh, underground, low-oxygen environments that would make quick work of most humans.

In other words, if it weren't for its looks, the naked mole rat would be considered super-human. I mean, it even chews new tunnels with its teeth.

In a quest to understand the rodent's seeming indestructibility, scientists have sequenced its genome and made it available to other researchers online (at www.naked-mole-rat.org) to see if biologists and geneticists can unearth clues to longevity in its DNA.

The naked mole rat, which is native to the horn of Africa, lives for 30 years, while most rodents its size live for four. (See graph below, which illustrates its longevity compared to other mammals. "H.g." represents the naked mole rat's scientific name, Heterocephalus glaber and "H.s." for homo sapiens.)

Liverpool-based biologist Dr. Joao Pedro Magalhaes conducted the work with researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, which is home to the United Kingdom's only naked mole rat colony.

In just a few days, they snipped and read chunks of the long strands of DNA that comprise the animal's genome and then reconnected them into the complete version.

The researchers plan to use the genome to understand ageing and disease. It may provide clues to cancer and tumor resistance, DNA repair and chronic diseases.

In a press release, Dr. Magalhaes said,

We aim to use the naked mole-rat genome to understand the level of resistance it has to disease, particularly cancer, as this might give us more clues as to why some animals and humans are more prone to disease than others. With this work, we want to establish the naked mole-rat as the first model of resistance to chronic diseases of ageing.

If biologists and geneticists do find clues to preventing ageing and disease in the naked mole rat's genome, we're happy for scientists to create new medicines and genetic innovations that help us pick up the animal's super-human qualities -- as long as we don't end up looking like it.

via BBC and Popular Science

photo: By Roman Klementschitz, via  Wikimedia Commons

Graph: naked-mole-rat.org

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure