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Mole rats hold key to longevity

Naked mole rats live in underground burrows for around 30 years and never suffer from cancer. Photo: Adam Fenster/University of Rochester/PA Wire

Naked mole rats live in underground burrows for around 30 years and never suffer from cancer. Photo: Adam Fenster/University of Rochester/PA Wire

An ability to build almost-perfect proteins may be the secret to long life and good health for one of nature’s greatest oddities, the naked mole rat.

The hairless creatures from East Africa live in underground burrows for around 30 years – longer than any other rodent – and never suffer from cancer.

Naked mole rats are the only mammal known to live in ant-like colonies consisting of a queen, a few breeding males and numerous sterile workers.

They also seem to have a unique physiology that allows them to resist cancer and live six times longer than mice or ordinary rats.

Scientists investigating the naked mole rat’s impressive health record found something unusual deep within its cells. A cellular machine called the ribosome that assembles proteins proved to be much more reliable in the creature than it is in other animals.

As the ribosome connects chains of amino acids together to form proteins, it occasionally makes a mistake. Sometimes the wrong amino acid is inserted, resulting in a flawed protein.

But the proteins made in naked mole rat cells are virtually perfect, said the scientists. In fact they are up to 40 times less likely to contain mistakes than proteins made in mouse cells.

“This is important because proteins with no aberrations help the body to function more efficiently,” said Andrei Seluanov, one of the researchers from the University of Rochester in the US.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key to the naked mole rat’s perfect proteins is believed to be a particular configuration of the genetic chemical RNA, which forms an important part of the ribosome.

Next the scientists hope to alter ribosomal RNA in mice in the same way to see if it improves protein construction.

Eventually the work could lead to treatments that affect protein synthesis in humans. But any medical application of the research would be a long way off, the researchers point out.

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