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Sweet?

Naked mole rats can survive


without oxygen using plant sugar tactic
By Hannah Devlin, The Guardian on 04.27.17
Word Count 733
Level MAX

A keeper holds a naked mole rat while it's being transferred from a holding cage at the Knoxville Zoo on March 28, 2006, in
Knoxville, Tennessee. Scientists now believe that the famously weird naked mole rat can survive without oxygen. AP Photo/
Wade Payne

They feel no pain, don’t get cancer and look like baggy-skinned sausages with teeth: the
naked mole rat is already famously weird. Now scientists have discovered what could be the
subterranean rodents’ strangest trait yet: they can survive without oxygen by switching to a
metabolic strategy normally used by plants.

By switching from a glucose-based metabolic system, which depends on oxygen, to one that
uses fructose instead, mole rats can cope with nearly 20 minutes in air with 0 percent oxygen.
Under the same conditions, a human would die within minutes.

“The naked mole rat has simply rearranged some basic building blocks of metabolism to make
it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions,” said Thomas Park, professor of biological sciences
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who made the discovery after studying the species for
18 years.

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The apparently unique metabolic strategy probably evolved along with the mole rats’ niche
lifestyle, he said. The animals live in stuffy, hyper-crowded burrows, with chambers in which a
hundred-odd colony mates sleep together in a heap of hairless bodies.

Scientists were aware that oxygen supplies in the mole rats’ tunnels drop to levels that would
be unsurvivable for other land mammals, but until now had not tested the limits of their ability
to cope with oxygen deprivation, or how this works biologically.

In the latest study, published in the journal Science, the team found that mole rats showed no
ill effects after five hours breathing air with 5 percent oxygen – slightly lower than oxygen levels
at the summit of Everest. Laboratory mice, by contrast, died within 10 minutes.

In 0 percent oxygen, both the mice and mole rats quickly lost consciousness. But while the
ordinary mice did not recover, the mole rats could survive in a state of suspended animation
for more than 18 minutes.

Although humans, such as free divers, can train themselves not to breathe for more than 10
minutes, they only manage to do this by effectively bolstering their oxygen levels beforehand.

“If you throw an ordinary person into 0 percent, it would be mere seconds or minutes,” said
Jane Reznick, Park’s co-author, based at the Max Delbrück Center of Molecular Medicine in
Berlin.

Grant McClelland, a biologist at McMaster University, Hamilton, who was not involved in the
work, described the findings as extraordinary. “I wouldn’t have predicted this ability for any
mammal,” he said.

As oxygen levels dropped, the animals stopped moving, their beady eyes shut and their pulse
and breathing dramatically slowed. Most curiously, though, metabolic tests revealed a sudden
spike in the levels of fructose in their blood.

“We were very surprised by this finding,” said Reznick.

The team discovered that instead of burning glucose to produce energy, the mole rats had
switched to a fructose-based metabolic system, something only previously seen in plants.

In aerobic metabolism, which the body normally relies on, the mitochondria (the cell’s
batteries) use broken-down glucose and oxygen to produce a molecule called ATP, which
biologists call the cell’s energy currency. When oxygen is in short supply, the body switches to
anaerobic metabolism, where glucose is converted to ATP without oxygen. However, this
conversion is about 20 times less efficient, and only ever serves as an emergency stopgap
because the production of lactic acid has an inhibitory effect on the process, causing the
metabolism to grind to a halt.

When mole rats switched to anaerobic metabolism, the scientists discovered, they started
using fructose instead of glucose to make energy – and while this was still inefficient, energy
production was steady.

“It’s a little amount of energy, but a steady amount, that can keep it going,” said Reznick.

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Understanding how the animals switch to an alternative metabolic pathway could lead to
treatments for patients suffering crises of oxygen deprivation, as in heart attacks and strokes,
the scientists said. They are now investigating whether human cells might have a dormant
ability to do the same thing.

Naked mole rats have fascinated scientists for decades. They can live more than 30 years,
are cold-blooded, have a social hierarchy comparable to bees or ants, can run backward and
forward with equal ease, eat their own poo, can move their teeth individually like chopsticks
and are one of the strangest looking creatures on the planet.

So how does the latest finding rank among their odd social and physical traits?

“Pretty highly,” says McClelland. “I’d say joint top with resistance to cancer.”

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Quiz

1 Which of the following paragraphs from the article BEST explains a disadvantage of anaerobic
metabolism?

(A) By switching from a glucose-based metabolic system, which depends on


oxygen, to one that uses fructose instead, mole rats can cope with nearly 20
minutes in air with 0 percent oxygen. Under the same conditions, a human
would die within minutes.

(B) As oxygen levels dropped, the animals stopped moving, their beady eyes shut
and their pulse and breathing dramatically slowed. Most curiously, though,
metabolic tests revealed a sudden spike in the levels of fructose in their blood.

(C) In aerobic metabolism, which the body normally relies on, the mitochondria (the
cell’s batteries) use broken-down glucose and oxygen to produce a molecule
called ATP, which biologists call the cell’s energy currency. When oxygen is in
short supply, the body switches to anaerobic metabolism, where glucose is
converted to ATP without oxygen. However, this conversion is about 20 times
less efficient, and only ever serves as an emergency stopgap because the
production of lactic acid has an inhibitory effect on the process, causing the
metabolism to grind to a halt.

(D) Understanding how the animals switch to an alternative metabolic pathway


could lead to treatments for patients suffering crises of oxygen deprivation, as
in heart attacks and strokes, the scientists said. They are now investigating
whether human cells might have a dormant ability to do the same thing.

2 Read the selection from the article.

In 0 percent oxygen, both the mice and mole rats quickly lost
consciousness. But while the ordinary mice did not recover, the mole
rats could survive in a state of suspended animation for more than 18
minutes.

Which of the following conclusions can be drawn from this selection?

(A) Mole rats are not able to survive indefinitely without oxygen.

(B) Mice and mole rats have primitive metabolic systems.

(C) Mole rats recover faster than mice after oxygen deprivation.

(D) Mice are able to live in low oxygen environments.

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3 Read the sentences from the article.

The apparently unique metabolic strategy probably evolved along with


the mole rats’ niche lifestyle, he said. The animals live in stuffy, hyper-
crowded burrows, with chambers in which a hundred-odd colony
mates sleep together in a heap of hairless bodies.

What is the meaning of the phrase "niche lifestyle" as used in the first sentence?

(A) behavior that has been adapted for a distinct environment

(B) behavior that is related to an organism's development

(C) behavior that changes over a long period of time

(D) behavior that limits where a mammal can live

4 Read the paragraph from the article.

Understanding how the animals switch to an alternative metabolic


pathway could lead to treatments for patients suffering crises of oxygen
deprivation, as in heart attacks and strokes, the scientists said. They
are now investigating whether human cells might have a dormant
ability to do the same thing.

Adding which of these sentences to the text would help explain the meaning of the word "dormant"
in the context of the article?

(A) Learning more about misunderstood systems is necessary to fight disease.

(B) Scientists want to pursue this potential solution to serious human diseases.

(C) Finding the key to this unknown, latent capacity could save lives.

(D) Human cells are just as energetic as those from mole rats.

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