The queen of a colony of naked mole rats can have offspring to a very old age. Researchers have now discovered what factors are responsible for this phenomenon, which is very rare in the animal kingdom. And they also found evidence that female naked mole rats lay new eggs over the course of their lives.
Unlike humans and other mammals, the naked mole rats are likely capable of producing eggs throughout their lives, write scientists led by Miguel Brieño-Enríquez of the Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the journal “Nature Communications.” The up to 15 centimeters long and barely hairy rodents live mainly in East Africa and can live to be about 30 years old.
Rodents almost never get cancer
“Naked mole rats are the strangest mammals,” says Brieño-Enríquez. “They live the longest of all rodents, almost never get cancer, don’t feel pain like other mammals, live in underground colonies and only the queen can have young. But to me the most amazing thing is that they never stop having offspring – their fertility doesn’t decrease as they get older, we want to understand how they do it.”
Brieño-Enríquez and his colleagues compared the ovaries of naked mole rats at different life stages with those of mice and found evidence for three possible reasons for the lifelong fertility of the naked mole rat: Female animals had significantly more oocytes compared to female mice, while they clearly dying off at lower rates.
Do they form new eggs throughout their lives?
For example, the researchers found 1.5 million eggs in an eight-day-old female naked mole rat – 95 percent more than in a female mouse of the same age, even though the ovaries of the two animals are similar in size. In addition, evidence has been found that female naked mole rats formed new eggs over the course of their lives, it said. While only the respective queen of a colony reproduces, all other female naked mole rats can, in theory, take their position at any time.
“This discovery is extraordinary,” said Ned Place of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who also participated in the study. “It undermines the dogma established some 70 years ago, according to which mammalian females are equipped with a finite number of eggs around birth, with no more added afterwards.”
Now it needs to be explored whether these findings could potentially also be used to better understand human ovaries and fertility – or to develop drugs that support them.
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