Naked mole rats are even freakier than we thought

Naked mole rats are the superheroes of the animal kingdom. They live nine times longer than other rodents and they’re essentially immune to cancer. And now scientists think their extreme longevity can be attributed to their exceptionally strange ribosomes.

Ribosomes are large and complex molecular machines that are found inside all living cells. They serve as the main location for biological protein synthesis, or translation.

And indeed, translation is key to the ribosome’s ability to do its work. It “reads” sequences of RNA and produces corresponding protein molecules. Inaccuracies in these translations are obviously bad.

Scientists know that these molecular mechanisms vary for different species, which in turn influences their respective rates of longevity. But they’re not entirely certain of the details. The new paper by Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanova now helps to clear some of this up, at least as far as the naked mole rat is concerned.

These researchers discovered that the naked mole rat has a unique fragmented, uneven ribosomal RNA structure. Its ribosome is processed into two smaller chunks of unequal size. In turn, this “cleaved” ribosomal RNA allows for more accurate protein translation when compared to rodents like mice. Their unique ribosomal system alters and improves translation rate and amino acid incorporation fidelity.

The discovery suggests the more stable protein translation of the naked mole rat contributes to its longevity — an important bit of insight that could help us better understand and treat human aging.

Read the entire study at PNAS: “Naked mole-rat has increased translational fidelity compared with the mouse, as well as a unique 28S ribosomal RNA cleavage.”

Image: Corbis/Frans Lanting.