Rochelle Buffenstein / City College of New York
Naked mole rats live about 10 times longer than other similar-sized mammals. This pregnant naked mole rat is 15 years old.
updated 10/12/2011 2:52:44 PM ET 2011-10-12T18:52:44

The newly deciphered genome of the hairless, underground-dwelling, long-lived and cancer-resistant naked mole rat could help researchers unravel the creature's secrets, and may help improve human health along the way.

"They are very odd, they are really freaky and they have a lot of really interesting specializations," study researcher and naked mole rat enthusiast Thomas Park, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, told LiveScience. "We are working to understand how they come to have these very interesting characteristics. Having the genome gives us a whole new armory of ways in which we can approach this."

The genome could hold the clues to deciphering the naked mole rat's unique life traits, behaviors and social characteristics. Using this information, scientists can learn more about evolution and could even help design better treatments for human disease, such as stroke and cancer, or even possibly find the fountain of youth.

A 'very special' mammal
Some find it hideous while others find it adorable, but anyway you cut it, the naked mole rat is a quirky creature. The small sausage-shaped rodent lives in underground burrows with up to 100 members with incredibly low oxygen levels.

The naked mole rat is the only cold-blooded mammal, it is hairless, has horrible eyesight and is even "cancer-resistant," even though it lives into its 30s (about 10 times longer than other similarly sized rodents). They are even immune to the pain of irritation caused by acids and spicy foods.

The naked mole rat is also the only mammal that lives in a "eusocial" society, similar to that of bees. Only a few of the mole rats get to breed with one queen, while the rest gather food and maintain the nest.

Sequencing the strange
The international team used a method called shotgun sequencing to read the genome of a lab-raised male naked mole rat. They read long strings of chemical bases that the DNA is made of, these bases are like letters that make up the words and sentences that define our genetic code. The researchers then lined them up to find the where they overlapped, creating longer strings until they covered the full genome. They did this several times to double check for any misread pairs.

After getting a complete genome, the researchers compared it with the genomes of humans and mice. They looked for any significantly different genes. Changes in these genes could inform why some mammals live longer or are resistant to diseases.

Vera Gorbunova, a researcher from the University of Rochester in New York who wasn't involved in the study, is excited about the possibilities. "Having the genome sequence is a starting point. Now with this tool in hand, a lot more analysis needs to be done (and will be possible to do) to understand the naked mole rat longevity and cancer resistance," she said in an email to LiveScience. "These unique mechanisms could be applied for cancer prevention and life-span extension in humans."

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Freakish findings
The researchers found that the naked mole rat had turned off several genes related to vision since they live in the dark. They also saw a mutation in the gene dubbed "hairless," previously seen to cause baldness in mice and humans, which could explain how they lost their fur.

While a quick cursory look at the genome sequencing is already shedding light on changes that may lead to the naked mole rat's exquisite uniqueness, the information is also useful for human health. Stroke and heart attack deprive parts of the body from oxygen. Discovering how the mole rats survive in their low-oxygen burrows can help scientists design treatments to improve outcomes.

By comparing this genome with those of other mole rats, including solitary ones, scientists could also tease out how the animal's genes influence their behaviors, Chris Faulkes, a naked mole rat researcher at the Queen Mary University of London, who wasn't involved in the study, told LiveScience.

Sequence for all
"A lot of people will use the information way beyond those who are mole rat fanatics like me; looking at these extreme animals can tell you a lot about more usual species," Faulkes said. "You can apply it to a much broader sphere of things."

Because the researchers sequenced the whole genome and will make it freely available online, diverse groups that study specific genes involved in cancer and longevity can look up those genes and determine how they may be different in the naked mole rat.

"It is very basic science," Park said. "But it can be a very useful tool as it gets into the hands of scientists worldwide."

The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

© 2012 All rights reserved.

Explainer: Top 10 oddballs of the animal world

  • Image: Platypus
    Healesville Sanctuary

    From the outside, the platypus looks like a grade-school art project assembled by a kid too busy making spitballs to pay attention in class. The creature, which is classified as a mammal, has a duck's bill and webbed feet, lays eggs like a reptile, but has fur and rears its young on milk.

    Researchers say the platypus genome is equally cobbled together from bird, reptile and mammalian lineages. One more oddity: Males can deliver venom from tiny spurs on each hind limb. Click on the "Next" arrow above to learn about nine more oddballs in the animal world.

    More info: Mixed-up platypus genome unscrambled

    — By John Roach, contributor

  • Colossal squid has plate-sized eye


    In April 2008, scientists in New Zealand looked a thawing colossal squid in the eye and discovered that the eye is, well, colossal — about the size of a dinner plate. That makes it the largest animal eye on Earth. Fishermen caught the 1,000-pound creature last year in Antarctic waters and froze it intact for scientific study. Colossal squids can reach 46 feet in length and have tentacles equipped with suckers and hooks. Scientists believe the creatures can descend to 6,500 feet and are active, aggressive hunters.

    More info: Huge squid caught, could be biggest ever

  • Aye-aye gives grubs the finger

    Duke University Lemur Center

    The aye-aye is a bushy-tailed primate from Madagascar with big eyes and bat ears. But call it funny-looking and it just might extend its extra-long middle finger in your general direction. The member of the lemur family otherwise uses the extended digit to fish out grubs from the crevices of trees. Captive aye-ayes such as the one shown here from Duke University are teaching scientists about the evolution of color vision.

    Learn more about the brainiac of all lemurs

  • Star-nosed mole sniffs out food, fast

    Image: Star-nosed mole
    Kenneth C. Catania / Vanderbilt

    The fleshy appendages that ring the snout of the star-nosed mole, shown here, make it one strange-looking creature. But when it comes to eating, those 22 tentacles help the mole detect and devour food faster than the human eye can follow — in a fraction of a second. Researchers say the speedy feeding allows the mole to prey on small insect larvae that would otherwise be too energetically costly to eat. The creature lives and forages under the cover of marshes and wetlands along the east coast of North America.

  • Burrowing toad is genetically different

    Robert Puschendorf

    For an amphibian, the stocky and squat Mexican burrowing toad doesn't look all that strange, but it's actually unique. A global conservation program called EDGE of Existence ranks the toad as the most "evolutionarily distinct" amphibian in the world. A fruit bat, polar bear, killer whale, kangaroo and human are all more closely related to one another than the toad is to any other species, according to the program. The Mexican burrowing toad, as its name suggests, spends most of the year underground, coming out only after particularly heavy rains to breed in pools of water.

    Learn about other bizarre amphibians under threat

  • Yeti crab lurks on the ocean bottom

    A Fifis  /  AP

    Named after the legendary shaggy man-beast that tromps through the snows in some of the world's tallest mountains, the Yeti crab blindly scurries about hydrothermal vents along a ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. First observed in 2005, the crab, officially named Kiwa hirsute, sports a carpet of pale yellow hairs on its arms. Scientists suspect the crab uses those hairs either to farm bacteria or to feel its way around the seafloor for food and potential mates.

    More info: Scientists to list all species on Web

  • Narwhals, the 'unicorn' whales

    Glenn Williams / Harvard Medical School

    Unicorns are purely mythical creatures, but the myths may have been inspired by narwhals. Most males and some females among the 2,200- to 3,500-pound whales sport an 8-foot-long appendage that emerges from the left side of their upper jaw. Scientists recently discovered that the elongated tooth is packed with nerve endings, making it extraordinarily sensitive. The whales may use it to determine the salinity of water and search for food. Male narwhals are also known to rub their tusks together, presumably because it gives off a unique sensation.

    More info: Mystery of 'unicorn' whale solved

  • Sucker-footed bats stick to Madagascar

    Field Museum (left); Bat Conservation Int'l (right)

    In January 2007, scientists announced the discovery of a new species of bat that uses suckers on its thumbs and hind feet to stick to broad-leafed plants such as the traveler's palm. The new species, Myzopoda schliemanni (left image), was found on the dry, western side of the African island nation of Madagascar and is closely related to another sucker-footed bat called Myzopoda aurita (right image) that lives in the humid eastern forests. Conservationists were heartened by the discovery because it suggests the bats can adapt to pioneering broad-leafed plants in deforested areas. Only about 8 percent of the island's original forest cover remains.

    Watch NBC video: What's killing all the bats?

  • Long-eared jerboa hops onto the screen

    Image: Long-eared jerboa

    In December 2007, conservationists released the first known footage of an endangered rodent they've nicknamed the "Mickey Mouse of the Desert." Known more formally as the long-eared jerboa, the little critter has ears about one-third larger than its head, and legs that allow for hopping like a kangaroo. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as endangered. One threat: the domestic cat.

    More info: Mongolian 'Mickey Mouse' caught on tape

  • Ligers, wholphins and grolar bears, oh my!

    Image: Liger
    TODAY show

    Every now and again, trysts between two different species result in oddball offspring that capture the public's fascination. Ligers, which are a cross between a male lion and a female tiger, were immortalized in the 2004 cult movie "Napoleon Dynamite": The main character of the 2004 cult movie, played by Jon Heder, describes it as "pretty much my favorite animal." (A real one is shown above.) Other popular hybrids include wholphins, which are a cross between false killer whales and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins; and the "grolar bear," a cross between a grizzly bear and polar bear.

    Watch NBC video of a liger
    Whale-dolphin hybrid has baby wholphin
    Hairy hybrid: Half grizzly, half polar bear


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