Naked Mole Rat Super Power #12: They Feel No Burn

By Veronique Greenwood | December 16, 2011 3:35 pm

naked moles
Going for a squirm, snacking on poo, living the naked mole rat life.

Oh, naked mole rats, what fresh new weirdness do you have for us today? It wasn’t enough that you look like wee spring rolls with teeth, or that you are nearly blind and navigate your ramifying, oxygen-poor burrows by scent. No, you are also apparently immune to cancer, have terrible, gimpy sperm, and, we learn today, feel no pain from acid burns because your nervous system is defective.

We’d heard things like this before, naked mole rats.

We learned in 2008 that you were missing the gene that makes hot peppers painful, when scientists injected your paws with the stuff and you were blissfully unaware. Giving you the gene reversed that, but you still didn’t seem to care when acid was injected (did we mentioned that you’re also cold-blooded? Holy cow, mole rats.). Now, though, that team has figured out what’s going on in those neurons of yours, and it’s not what they thought.

They expected they’d find that you were missing the receptors for acids, nipping the pain message in the bud. But you had those, so they looked farther along and found two mutations in a sodium channel, which lets starts the chain reaction in neurons that results in the release of neurotransmitters and, in a brain far, far away, the sensation of pain. For you, naked mole rats, that never happens. This works out well, because in your claustrophobic little burrows you and your family are exhaling plenty of carbon dioxide that turns all acidic and burny when it touches skin. Guess you didn’t need that sodium receptor anyway.

Actually, naked mole rats, there are a lot of people out there with chronic pain who wish they were in your situation: with some way to turn off their nervous systems’ crazy oversensitivity. They, along with all the folks who want to know how they can out-live their cousins five-fold (mice: 4 years; you: 20 years) and the people who’d really prefer not to get cancer, are pretty interested in your biology. And, you know, you’re making us—we who tear up over lemon juice in a paper cut—look bad.

I think I speak for the human race when I say everyone wants to be you, mole rats. Except for the part about feasting on your own poo. That, you can keep.

Image courtesy of ViNull / flickr


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