Things you ought to know about naked mole rats: “1. They are a little bit rat. 2. They are a little bit mole. 3. They are all naked,” author Mo Willems wrote in his children’s book, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.
Scientists with Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute are also finding that the literal—as well as the literary—little creatures have a whole lot more to teach us.
In the animal world one of the keys to long life is large size. Typically, the more minute mammalian species don’t live as long as the larger ones. Many mice-sized animals only live long enough to take three or four trips around the sun.
The naked mole rat, neither mole nor rat, defies this mass-based age rule by living almost 30 years longer than the five or so years one might expect.
“We know the naked mole rat is a weird animal,” said Principal Investigator Viviana Pérez, Ph.D. “We want to find out its secrets.”
According to the Linus Pauling Institute’s most recent newsletter, “Early results from her cell culture experiments indicate that cells from naked mole rats are more resilient to the toxicity induced by protein aggregates than cells of short-living species like mice.”
Understanding how proteins group up and get up to no good as organisms grow older could hold clues to our own species’ health and longevity as well. As with the best of spectator science, this story also comes with a “Huh, that’s weird” set of observations.
Peculiarly, scientists found that the perinuclear regions of naked mole rat cells actually accumulated higher amounts of polyglutamine, a protein aggregate associated with Huntington’s disease, than they observed in cells from mice. “Based on these data, they hypothesize that longevity is modulated not only through resistance to protein toxicity, but also by the capacity of the cell to clear protein aggregates via a special ‘garbage deposit,’” continued LPI’s newsletter.
If scientists can successfully understand the mechanisms underlying this protective effect, they might someday be able to manipulate them in other animals like mice to impact aging. Someday research like this may help provide hope for those living with protein-aggregation diseases like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.
By Matthew Hunt