The naked mole-rat lives for thirty years - compared to 1-2 years for other rodents - and we've never found any evidence that it can get cancer. Now we're peeking inside its genome to figure out what makes it special.
This particular rodent is the only known mammal species to possess negligible senescence, which means that it doesn't experience any decline in physical or mental faculties due to aging. Tortoises are probably the most famous examples of this, as they've been known to live as much as 250 years. (You can learn more about negligible senescence in this post.)
But naked mole-rats are particularly exciting because they're mammals, which means they're much more closely related to us than any other negligibly senescent organisms. Native to the deserts of East Africa, the naked mole-rat has almost no pain sensation in its skin and its super-slow metabolism lets it eke out an existence in the oxygen-depleted underground. As far as we know, it's completely impervious to cancer - we've been studying the rodents for decades and no one has ever observed any sign of cancer in them - and biologists believe that its cells possess some sort of anti-tumor capabilities.
Now the University of Liverpool has teamed up with The Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich to provide the first full sequencing of the naked mole-rat genome. Dr Joao Pedro Magalhaes explains:
"The naked mole-rat has fascinated scientists for many years, but it wasn't until a few years ago that we discovered that it could live for such a long period of time. It is not much bigger than a mouse, which normally lives up to four years, and yet this particular underground rodent lives for three decades in good health. It is an interesting example of how much we still have to learn about the mechanisms of aging.
"We aim to use the naked mole-rat genome to understand the level of resistance it has to disease, particularly cancer, as this might give us more clues as to why some animals and humans are more prone to disease than others. With this work, we want to establish the naked mole-rat as the first model of resistance to chronic diseases of aging."
Due to advances in sequencing technology, the researchers hope to have a first draft the genome ready within the next few days, which even a few years ago would have been completely unheard of for a complex mammalian genome. The researchers' work with the naked mole-rat genome will tie in with a recently launched longevity database of over 4,000 species.
We're still a ways off from really coming to grips with the immortality of naked mole-rats, let alone figuring out what applications it might have for improving human longevity. In the meantime, you can check out the researchers' newly launched website, which will provide updates on the genome sequencing as they become available. You can also check out the researchers' original paper on why the naked mole-rat genome should be sequenced.