ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Often on this program, we tell you how an experiment with mice may help solve a human health problem. Well, today, we have news of a different rodent that could be helpful in medical research - the naked mole-rat. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: These ground-dwelling rodents are wrinkled, pink and weigh about an ounce, and they just don't follow the rules. They're mammals but are cold blooded like reptiles. They have eyes but can barely use them. And they have lungs, but they can live in underground tunnels with very little oxygen.
THOMAS PARK: They have evolved under such a different environment that it's like studying an animal from another planet.
BICHELL: That's Tom Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wanted to know just how far these animals could go with little or no oxygen.
PARK: And the naked mole-rats surprised everybody, I think.
BICHELL: In the lab, Park and his colleagues started by putting the mole-rats in a container with only 5 percent oxygen. That's about a quarter of what's in the air we breathe. And it can kill a mouse in less than 15 minutes.
PARK: We thought, any sign of trouble, we're going to take them out. So we put them in the chamber, and after five minutes, nothing, no problems. After an hour, no problems.
BICHELL: After five hours, the researchers were wilting, but the mole-rats could have kept going.
PARK: They had more stamina than the researchers.
BICHELL: Then the weary scientists tested how the animals fared in 0 percent oxygen, which can kill a mouse in less than a minute.
PARK: Yeah. And that was a surprise, too.
BICHELL: As Park and his colleagues write in the journal Science, the mole-rats could survive for 18 minutes with no oxygen at all. They did pass out, but once re-exposed to normal air, they woke up again, apparently unaffected. It turns out, Park says, the animals switch fuels. They can create energy without oxygen by using a sugar called fructose, which is actually what plants do. Maybe, says Park, this finding could someday help people survive oxygen deprivation from something like a stroke or a heart attack. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.