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"Plantimal" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Deprived of oxygen, naked mole rats can survive by metabolizing fructose just as plants do, researchers report. Understanding how the animals do this could lead to treatments for patients suffering crises of oxygen deprivation, as in heart attacks and strokes.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Going green.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files from the National Science Foundation.

Nature provides some incredible survival strategies but this one crosses a line that has scientists re-thinking what's possible. An animal that, when deprived of oxygen, starts to act like a plant. Thanks to a team led by the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with a hairless, cold-blooded mammal known as the naked mole rat, we now have a window into this remarkable, unconventional adaptation.

(Sound effect: mole-rat sounds) If you're a naked mole rat, you live in close quarters in underground tunnels with hundreds of other NMRS, competing for what little oxygen makes its way into the unventilated space. At low oxygen levels that would kill a human within five minutes, our trusty naked mole-rat can survive up to five hours.

The team determined that under low oxygen conditions, the mole rats go into suspended animation, and release large amounts of fructose into their blood. Their brain cells burn that fructose to produce energy -- no oxygen needed. The only known mammal to do that.

Finding the keys to this emergency backup could lead to treatments for heart attacks or strokes, where O2 deprivation can quickly result in brain damage.

And it could make the mole rats famous for something other than being naked. (Sound effect: open shower curtain, tiny scream)

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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