Image: Tim Evanson, Flickr

Naked mole rats are some of the most amazing mammals on the planet — capable of surviving nearly 20 minutes in environments without oxygen. 

A new study reveals insight into how they are able to accomplish this formidable task. The naked mole rat’s physiology attributes to its adeptness at adapting to low-oxygen environments, including small lungs and a high affinity for oxygen.

These animals also have very slow metabolic and respiratory rates, especially in relation to their small size. But scientists have long wondered how they are able to persist in environments with no oxygen without tissue damage due to acidosis.

A recent study published in Science analyzed chemical changes in oxygen-deprived rats, which provided fascinating insight.

Naked mole rats are able to survive in these oxygen-free environments without damaging their tissues by rewiring their metabolisms.

Image: Benny Mazur, Wikimedia Commons

Animals typically break down sugar into energy through a process known as glycolysis, which requires oxygen. Without oxygen, unwanted byproducts such as lactate build up in the body, resulting in the cease of glycolysis and eventually cell death.

The study found that naked mole rats possess higher quantities of fructose in their bodies than other animals, in addition to the molecule that transports fructose into cells, GLUT5. Naked mole rats have developed a way to use fructose for energy in the absence of oxygen.

Naked mole rats are actually capable of rewiring their metabolism, an astounding feat that could be applied to human medicine.

“It is a great example of evolution finding different solutions for the same or similar environmental challenges,” physiologist Grant McClelland stated to Science concerning the process.

Studying naked mole rats could be key to saving human lives.