By: April Carson
Age is known to hurt fertility for humans and other mammals, yet the naked mole rat possesses a remarkable lifetime of infinite reproduction potential. Scientists have become increasingly curious about the unique biology of this animal, as it could potentially help us unlock methods for improving fertility in other species.
According to Dr. Miguel Brieño-Enríquez, Assistant Professor from Magee-Womens Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences: "Naked mole-rats are without a doubt one of the most peculiar mammals". The naked mole rat stands out as a species due to its longevity and resilience. They don't experience the same kind of pain other mammals do, live in underground colonies, and only the queen can reproduce - yet what’s most remarkable is that their fertility doesn't decline with age like other animals! We are driven by our ambition to unlock this secret; an understanding which could potentially benefit humans too.
Oogenesis is a process through which females of many mammal species, including humans and mice, are born with a predetermined number of egg cells. Unfortunately, this finite reserve shrinks as time passes; some eggs die during ovulation but most simply perish as we age. As such, fertility tends to decrease over the years for female mammals.
On the other hand, naked mole-rat queens can breed regularly with age, implying that they possess particular processes which maintain their ovarian reserve and prevent decreasing fertility. Recent studies have investigated the underlying mechanisms which contribute to these mole rats' mysterious reproductive prowess and may shed light on ways to prolong human fertility.
Brieño-Enríquez proposed that three potential processes at work may explain how sharks produce so many egg cells-- either they're born with a lot of them, fewer die off, or more continue to be produced after birth. His favorite theory is a mix of all three. After conducting research and collecting data, Brieño-Enríquez and his team discovered evidence for each possibility.
By analyzing ovaries from mice and naked mole rats of different ages, the research team discovered a notable discrepancy in lifespans. While mice usually live up to four years before their fertility begins declining at nine months old, naked mole rats can survive for over 30 years with no decline in reproductive capability.
Researchers discovered that female naked mole rats had an astonishing amount of egg cells compared to mice, with a mortality rate lower than their rodent counterparts. On average, 8-day-old naked mole-rat females possess 1.5 million egg cells - 95 times more than the same age group in mice. This astounding number makes them exempt from typical mammalian reproductive aging and sets these animals apart as entities unto themselves.
Unbelievably, the study revealed that oogenesis is occurring postnatally in naked mole rats. Egg precursor cells were flourishing and continuing to divide at 3-month-old animals, as well as 10-year-old specimens – indicating a potential for lifelong egg production! This extraordinary discovery suggests that these creatures are capable of maintaining their fertility levels throughout their lives.
What's more, the study found that naked mole rats were able to suppress cell death in their ovaries by generating new egg precursor cells. This process was not seen in mice, which suggests that the immortal fertility of naked mole rats is governed by a unique mechanism.
Naked mole rats are social creatures, living in colonies of dozens to hundreds of individuals who engage in task-sharing reminiscent of bees or ants. These tasks include defending the colony, tunneling underground networks, and caring for the young; they also scavenge for food together. Interestingly, only one female -the dominant queen typically presides over each colony- is allowed to breed while other females' reproductive activity is suppressed by her royal decree.
"If you are familiar with how social hierarchies work in colonies of bees and ants, then what I am about to tell you may surprise you; a female naked mole-rat is not born with the title of queen," commented Brieño-Enríquez. "Should the current reigning monarch die or be removed from her post, those beneath her will battle it out for control – any girl can become royalty."
This unique dynamic has been studied for years and it's still a mystery how the queen can maintain her power. What is even more impressive, though, is that she can remain in this position of dominance, and remain fertile, for up to 28 years!
Recently published in Nature Communications today, this new research illuminates the unique biological processes allowing these rodents their seemingly everlasting fertility - findings that could be utilized in possible therapies designed to help people. This could also have implications for aging and longevity research.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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