East Africa's naked mole rat may be one of the ugliest critters on the planet, but to scientists around the world it is beautiful.
Numerous labs have invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours in an ongoing effort to understand the animal's amazing physiological, biochemical and genetic tools that allow it to live under impossible conditions for a very, very long time.
It's not that they care all that much about a mouse-sized subterranean rat that looks like a soggy cigar with fangs. It's just that if we could fully unravel its mysteries we might be able to eliminate cancer, prevent strokes, reduce pain, keep our brains working longer, and beat back the debilitating effects of the aging process.
And maybe we could live for 300 years.
The naked mole rat lives about six feet underground, in caverns and tunnels that can stretch on for two miles, in air that is so putrid and oxygen-deprived it would be fatal or lead to irreversible brain damage in any other mammal, according to scientists at the University of Illinois in Chicago, one of several premier research institutions dedicated to figuring out how the naked mole rat does that sort of thing.
While its closest relatives, mostly mice and rats, usually live for only about three years, the naked mole rat can hang on for more than 30 years, and remain healthy and presumably happy right up to the end. If we could do that, we would measure our lives in centuries, not decades.
We're a long ways from that, of course, but scientists are making considerable progress in understanding how the mole rat does it. Some of what they learn clearly could have implications for humans; some of it probably will not.
It's kind of a new era in various lines of research.
"A lot of cancer research focuses on animals that are prone to cancer. We think it's possible to learn strategies for preventing tumors by studying animals that are cancer-proof," Vera Gorbunova of the University of Rochester said last year in releasing her study.
Her group has found that the rat uses a uniquely modified gene (HAS2) to produce a chemical known as HMW-HA, which appears to play a role in protecting the animal from cancer and some types of pain.
The Barshop Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, has the largest collection of naked mole rats in the United States -- 2,000 that thrive in a network of humid tubes and cages similar to their natural habitat. The institute, directed by Rochelle Buffenstein, is center stage for several research projects. According to Buffenstein, her research is focusing on age-related changes in the naked mole rat compared to other similar animals.
Karl Rodriguez, a member of Buffenstein's team, presented research at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology a few days ago suggesting that the rat's longevity and continued good health is due to the presence of a specific protein (HSP25) that is partly responsible for keeping the rat's cells healthy.
"If we can understand how HSP25 levels are regulated (in the naked mole rat), what its function is and how it contributes to cell health, we might find ways to use this protein to combat devastating age-related diseases" like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, Rodriguez said in releasing that study.
Significantly, that protein is far more prevalent in the naked mole rat than in other mole rats and several related species, establishing correlation but not necessarily causation.
Another protein (NRG-1), essential for normal brain functioning, was found to remain at a high level throughout the life of the naked mole rat. That protein protects the integrity of neurons, or brain cells, and it may explain how the rat can remain so healthy throughout its long life, according to researchers at Tel Aviv University who are also part of Buffenstein's team.
Other scientists are intrigued with the rat's lifestyle, because it lives in a highly structured colony that largely resembles ant colonies. Much like the ant's queen, one female reigns over the colony, and she alone has babies -- as many as 12 at a time every couple of months. There are many males that serve as fathers, and they -- along with all their offspring -- serve the queen.
According to Texas A & M researchers, the naked mole rat is the most advanced species to live in such an organized colony. Most of the young give up the chance to breed and produce their own broods and spend their lives building the tunnels and the caverns, and the giant room where the queen lives with her servants.
If that lifestyle is painful, the rats wouldn't know it. Sometime during the evolution of the species, the naked mole rat eliminated a chemical from its system that sends signals to the brain that something really hurts -- not even when exposed to the bite of capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers blistering hot.
The scientists "restored" the chemical to one rear foot of each tested rat and exposed them to capsaicin. They would pull that foot up and lick it, showing they felt pain, but only in that foot. There's hope that this research could lead to better treatment for humans who suffer with severe pain.
Those are only a few of the areas that scientists are probing with the help of a blind, hairless, wrinkled animal that just may lead us to a better and much longer life.