The Naked Truth About Mole Rats

Naked Mole Rats. They might not be the cutest animals, but Scientists are hopeful these Rodents could hold important answers about the aging process and cancer resistance.

TRANSCRIPT

Naked mole rats, they might not be the cutest animals, but scientists are hopeful these rodents could hold important answers about the aging process and cancer resistance.

Here is the story.

Despite the naked mole rat name, these crazy-looking creatures are not naked, nor are they moles or rats, but what naked mole rats are is unique, and these rodents could hold clues for researchers about evolution, aging and cancer resistance.

At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, a colony of these critters causes a stir among visitors.

Manager of animal husbandry, Melissa Chin, shares her thoughts on naked mole rats over the din of excited school kids.

A lot of the guests are horrified initially, but once we start talking to them, they are interested, and they're like, 'Okay, these animals are kind of cute now,' so it's really fascinating to see the gamut from, 'Oh, my God. They're so gross,' to 'Oh, they're so adorable.

I want to take one home.'

However you see them, the naked mole rats' features are fascinating and functional.

Naked mole rats originate from drier areas of East Africa where they spend most of their time burrowing underground.

Barring the occasional snake or bird, they don't have many predators, so it's thought that the species has been more easily able to evolve over time to suit its environment and live as long as possible.

They live deep underground, and the environment can be really, really warm, so they don't really need those hairs except for sensing.

The teeth stick out, and their mouth is closed behind it, and that's because they can dig, and when they're underground, they want to be using those teeth to help dig, but they don't want dirt inside their mouths.

Additionally, while naked mole rats have eyes, they're basically blind, and their skin is loose and pain-resistant to allow for maneuvering through tight hot spaces.

They're fascinating to watch.

President and CEO Paul Hoffman is a long-time fan of the animal and helped bring a colony to the Liberty Science Center.

The deep science that they represent is amazing.

They can go about 18 minutes with no oxygen.

They rarely get cancer or any other disease of cellular aging.

I mean, they live to be about 30 years.

A normal rodent maybe lives 2 or 3 years, so there's at least 1,000 research teams around the world that are studying naked mole rats.

Biology professor Vera Gorbunova is part of one such research team at the University of Rochester in upstate New York.

We are interested in understanding the mechanism that make naked mole rats live so long, so naked mole rat is the longest-living rodent, and they're also very healthy.

As they get older, they don't develop diseases with aging such as cancer, neurodegenerative disease, heart disease, arthritis.

They're resistant to all of them, so we want to understand why.

Gorbunova researches a process called cellular senescence in which cells stop dividing.

It's a phenomenon that helps, for example, slow down the spread of cancer cells in humans which is a positive outcome.

However, by slowing cell division to prevent a disease from spreading, an organism's overall aging process speeds up because the good tissues are not replenishing either.

This is why the likelihood of an animal dying increases with age.

The older the species become, the older your animals are, their chance of dying goes up, but with naked mole rats it doesn't have the same pattern.

They just keep dying at about the same rate, and it doesn't increase, so that was the most striking observation.

Previously, researchers thought that naked mole rats might not experience cellular senescence, but earlier this year, Gorbunova's team discovered that is not the case.

What does differentiate naked mole rats, Gorbunova says, is their tissues are saturated in hyaluronic acid, a gooey substance that retains moisture.

And it provides various health benefits to them.

Human cells can make hyaluronic acid, but in the naked mole rats it's much larger molecule, and there is much more of it.

So the question becomes, if hyaluronic acid can be artificially increased, could that slow down the aging process in humans?

First we did it in a mouse, so this is very new work.

We just seen very first results, but these mice seemed to be healthy, so it's very exciting, and then, of course, the next step will be how we can then apply it to humans.

Back at the Liberty Science Center, the next generation of scientists is making its own discoveries by following naked mole rats through the complex of tubes that houses their colony.

I think they're completely fascinating.

You can watch them on one side gathering food.

You can sight some of the other ones digging tunnels.

They have a queen who basically has all the young, and all of the other workers help take care of those babies, so you can see some of the animals kind of moving around and doing their jobs.

The rodents fill their maze with all kinds of movements -- working, relaxing, cuddling and climbing, delighting visitors and demonstrating that there's much more to naked mole rats than meets the eye.