I’ve gotten to the point in life where anytime there’s a buzz out there in the science community about something that bears on longevity, it gets my attention. And so it was that Wednesday’s publication in the journal Nature of new research on the blind, hairless, naked mole rat came up on my radar screen. You see, this little critter lives longer than others, doesn’t get cancer, and has a genome that may, when it’s finally unraveled, provide clues to aging that could extend our own tormented lives.

“They are very odd, they are really freaky and they have a lot of really interesting specializations,” said study researcher and naked mole rat enthusiast Thomas Park, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We are working to understand how they come to have these very interesting characteristics. Having the genome gives us a whole new armory of ways in which we can approach this.”

So, first of all, what, exactly, is naked mole rat? He is a small sausage-shaped rodent who lives in underground burrows with up to 100 members with incredibly low oxygen levels. It is nature’s only cold-blooded mammal, it is hairless, has horrible eyesight, is “cancer-resistant,” and lives regularly into its 30s, which is about 10 times longer than other similarly sized rodents. The naked mole rat is also the only mammal that lives in a “eusocial” society, similar to that of bees. Only a few of the mole rats get to breed with one queen, while the rest gather food and maintain the nest. Go figure.

Researchers used a method called shotgun sequencing to read long strings of chemical bases that the DNA is made of, then looked for any significantly different genes on the theory, proven in other cases, that these genes could inform why some mammals live longer or are resistant to diseases. They found genes that may shed light on aging in new ways….whether this actually helps any of the rest of us remains to be seen, but — hey, any rat that lives into his thirties would be like a human living to a thousand, so the naked mole rat deserves more study. There’s got to be something there…

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