Hairless rat named Vertebrate of the Year
Science Magazine has given the east African naked mole rat its coveted Vertebrate of the Year award. Perhaps it was presumptuous of us to think intelligence, cunning and near nakedness would gain humans the top ranking—not to mention keeping Homo sapiens atop the food chain.
But University of Rochester biologists Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov offered a powerful rationale for the magazine's judges to summon up the backbone to give the nod to the bucktoothed, hairless rodents, who spend their entire lives underground. They live their 30-year lifespans in near perfect health and never get cancer.
Heterocephalus glaber “may hold a lesson or two for humans,” the editors noted, perhaps fearing that the National Institutes of Health-funded researchers may become trap bait for some latter day William Proxmire (whose Golden Fleece awards frequently targeted what he considered weird science).
One paper by the two co-authors identified a complex sugar formed in the pale rodents' bodies that keeps cancer cells from clumping together to form tumors. Another described how a ribosome inside cells in naked mole rats “excels at producing error-free proteins.”
So where will this science take us—a biotech pill that replicates the mole rat's magic qualities? Clearly, more research is needed. Perhaps the next steps will be to sequence the genomes of hairless, cancer-free, 90-year-old humans to identify the human variant.
Follow Merrill Goozner on Twitter: @MHgoozner