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A precise pattern among bats, rats and origami

September 2009

Earlier this year, Barshop Institute scientists published papers that provide clues as to how two types of extremely long-lived mammals, bats and naked mole-rats, seem to beat the sands of time.

The secret rests in the lifelong good health of their cells' proteins, both studies observed. "Proteins do everything that goes on in cells," said Asish Chaudhuri, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry, who co-authored both studies. "Proteins make all the chemical reactions go, such as energy production and waste disposal, and provide the cell's structure."

"Proteins need very precise folding to work correctly," said Barshop Institute faculty member Steven Austad, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology. "The animals that are the best at maintaining this precise origami-like folding are the ones that are going to live a long time."

Naked mole-rats, native to East Africa, resemble pink, wrinkly, saber-toothed sausages. They are the champs of longevity among rodents, living 30 years, or nine times longer than similar-sized mice, said Rochelle Buffenstein, Ph.D., professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute.

Like exquisite pieces of folded paper made in the Japanese art of origami, proteins fold and unfold on a continuous basis over the life of the cell.

  Photo of a naked mole rat
Naked mole rats are considered the champs of longevity among rodents.
The bats under study are two types commonly found in Texas, and one of the species has been reported to live as long as 30 years in the wild.

The Barshop Institute set up a comparative biology program in aging a few years ago. This program studies species that are both short lived (such as mice) and long lived (such as mole-rats and bats). The scientists compare and contrast cellular, molecular and biochemical traits to reveal mechanisms that might contribute to prolonged good health and long life.

Viviana Perez, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, was the first author of the mole-rats study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Adam Salmon, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, was the first author of the bats study in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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