Discover the Inner Beauty of the Naked Mole Rat

Beneath their nearly blind and hairless appearance, naked mole rats have evolved hidden molecular adaptations for life underground. In this week's video pick, new research by Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov of the University of Rochester shows how these aesthetically challenged creatures live long, cancer-free lives.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, it's time for our video pick of the week. And making his debut on SCIENCE FRIDAY is our new video producer, Luke Groskin. Hey, Luke.

LUKE GROSKIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: You like this seat? Get used to it.

GROSKIN: It's nice and comfy.

FLATOW: All right. What have you got for us this week?

GROSKIN: Well, today we're going to regale ourselves in the inner beauty of the naked mole rat.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: The inner beauty. That's almost an oxymoron. The inner beauty of the naked mole rat.

GROSKIN: Yeah. Yeah. We're going to look past their surface, which is really strange and bizarre.

Past their teeth that jut out past their lips and their hairlessness and their blindness, and we're going to look at some of their adaptations that allow them to live underground entirely.

So they are a pretty unique species. They don't come out of the underground at all. And they also have this ability to live very long. That's what makes them very special.

FLATOW: Long. By long you mean what?

GROSKIN: Like 32 years long.

FLATOW: Not dog years.

GROSKIN: No. No.

FLATOW: Thirty-two human years.

GROSKIN: Yeah. Those are naked mole rats. Those are human years. And, you know, dogs, they live about 15 years, cats maybe 20 if they're lucky. But a mouse, a creature about the size of a naked mole rat, lives only three years. So that's pretty impressive that they live 32 years. And they've developed certain molecular adaptations that allow them to reach that ripe old age of 32 years.

FLATOW: And that's why scientists are studying them.

GROSKIN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So there are two researchers at the University of Rochester, Dr. Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov, and what they've done is they've looked into how they live that long, how they live 32 years. And one of the main ways they do it is they don't get cancer.

FLATOW: They - the mole rats don't get cancer.

GROSKIN: That's right. There's - they don't get tumors, they don't get cancer.

FLATOW: Wow.

GROSKIN: Yeah. It's pretty cool. And so what they did was they started by looking at the cells and they noticed right off the bat that the cells don't grow very close together. They're very claustrophobic. And then they started noticing that in the Petri dish of these cell cultures, the medium that the cells were in started getting very syrupy and gooey.

FLATOW: Slimy.

GROSKIN: Yeah. It started collecting in the vacuums that they use to clean. And, you know, they thought it was just a nuisance but it turns out - and I'm not going to give away exactly what that goo is - it turns out that goo has a lot to do with their cancer resistance. And if you want to find out what that goo was, and how they're actually resistant to cancer, you go to sciencefriday.com and you watch the video about naked mole rats.

FLATOW: Our video pick of the week. And they are very acrobatic in that video. You watch them in those little tunnels that the scientists have them in, they can turn around.

GROSKIN: Exactly. Exactly. So one of the things - that acrobaticness, that stretchiness of their skin...

FLATOW: Yeah.

GROSKIN: ...that's actually very, very tied to their cancer resistance. I'm not going to give it away but...

FLATOW: Something in the skin.

GROSKIN: Yeah. Yeah. And that elasticity, that ability to kind of stretch and go back, that has a lot to do with their cancer resistance. You know, I've actually held one and when you pick them up it kind of feels like their skin's coming off of them. They kind of hang in their skin.

FLATOW: Do they get any prettier...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSKIN: No. They don't. In fact, the queen - they live in these colonies called eusocial colonies, and what that means is that there's a queen and a caste system and she has two male consorts that she uses and she breeds with. But the queen, as she gets older, her spine kind of lifts up to allow more room for her babies and she gets this arched back. And she doesn't look very pretty. She's not queenly. She's not regal.

FLATOW: Well, if you want to hear - watch the secrets of the naked mole rats, go to our website. It's sciencefriday.com. Great video up there, Luke.

GROSKIN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: It's just terrific stuff. That's our video pick of the week. Luke Groskin, thanks for joining us.

GROSKIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today.

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