Naked Mole Rats Are Just Built Better: Near-Perfect Protein Creation May Explain Their Incredible Longevity

You might think a "naked" animal would be more susceptible to disease and environmental hazards. But naked mole rats, found in desert areas like East Africa, don’t get cancer, are resistant to disease, can survive in near-toxic environments, and live for an unusually long time. And now researchers believe they may have discovered the key to naked mole rats' longevity: well-constructed proteins.

For rodents -- and many other animals -- 30 years is a very long lifespan, so how do naked mole rats do it? Researchers from the University of Rochester discovered the secret is in the rodent’s proteins. A study led by Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the ribosomes, a “molecular machine” that combines amino acids to form proteins, of naked mole rats to learn more about protein creation.

Proteins are essential and, according to the National Library of Medicine, “are required for the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.” Proteins must have a specific structure and must fold properly in order to interact with other cellular structures. Incorrect protein folding in humans may be due to a mutation or a simple mistake made by the ribosome and is believed to play a role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The researchers discovered that naked mole rat ribosomes do not make such mistakes, creating perfectly folded proteins almost every time. Seluanov said in a statement, “This is important because proteins with no aberrations help the body to function more efficiently.”

The researchers were analyzing the rats' ribosome RNA (rRNA) when, after applying a dye and examining the rRNA under ultraviolet light, they discovered a break in the protein. Ribosome RNA makes up the majority of the RNA, approximately 60 to 66 percent, and plays an important role in protein synthesis.

Animal rRNA typically have two bands, indicating different rRNA molecules, but naked mole rats have three, reports the University of Rochester. According to the researchers, rRNA acts as a “scaffold” and this break in the rRNA of naked mole rats leads to better protein creation. Compared to mouse cells, proteins created by naked mole rats are up to 40 times less likely to contain mistakes, such as incorrect amino acid insertion. Only one other mammal has been found to have a cleaved ribosome, the tuco-tuco (also a rodent), reports Los Angeles Times.

Gorbunova and Seluanov were also responsible for discovering the mechanism behind the naked mole rat’s resistance to cancer. In the future, the researchers want to break mouse rRNA to see if it leads to better protein creation.

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