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Researchers sequence cancer-resistant rodent's DNA

Humans might benefit from better understanding the naked mole-rat, which boasts a lack-of-pain sensation in its skin, and resistance to both aging and disease.

Naked mole-rats can live for more than 30 years. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

You wouldn't know it by looking at it, but the naked mole-rat has a few things to teach the animal world. It has fascinated researchers since it was discovered a few years ago that the rodents can live for 30 years, compared to the mouse's average life span of four.

So after launching an online database that details the lives and histories of more than 4,000 animal species, a consortium of researchers from around the world set out to sequence the genome of the naked mole-rate--which is native to the deserts of East Africa.

With the help of the Genome Analysis Centre in the United Kingdom and the latest sequencing technologies, researchers obtained a first draft of the genome in just a few days. A few tidbits we know thus far:

Not only does the mole-rat boast a low metabolic rate that allows it to use very little oxygen to survive underground, but its skin actually lacks pain sensation, enabling it to survive in unusually harsh conditions. If that weren't enough, its cells appear to possess anti-tumor capabilities not found in other rodents or humans.

Any one of these qualities could be useful to study in and of itself, but the combination of them makes the sequencing of the species' DNA an important moment in better understanding possible ways to resist disease--and even aging--on a cellular level.

"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," Joao Pedro Magalhaes, of the University of Liverpool's Institute of Integrative Biology, said in a statement. "With this work, we want to establish the naked mole-rat as the first model of resistance to chronic diseases of aging."

Clearly, there is more to come, as the researchers sift through the data. Only time will tell how the naked mole-rat's approach to life may aid other species as well.