Blind mole-rats are loaded with anticancer genes

Rodent's genome reveals secrets of surviving underground

BLIND AS A MOLE-RAT  The genome of the blind mole-rat helps explain why the animals lack eyes, live long lives and are champion cancer fighters. The genome also reveals that the rodent is more closely related to Chinese hamsters than to naked mole-rats, from which its lineage split from about 71 million years ago. 

Michael Margulis

Blind mole-rats aren’t exactly lookers. But the long-lived subterranean rodents do have other charms, including pronounced abilities to fight cancer (SN: 12/15/12, p. 12) and withstand low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide.

Now, an international group of researchers has compiled the animal’s genetic instruction book, giving a glimpse into how the rodents perform these feats. The genome of the blind mole-rat, Spalax galili contains more than 22,000 genes, the team reports June 3 in Nature Communications. That’s about the same number of genes as humans have.

The eyeless rodent’s genome contains 259 defunct genes, including 22 involved in building the eye, constructing other parts of the visual system or processing visual signals. But the animals have doubled up on a cancer-fighting gene encoding the immune system chemical interferon-beta1 and have more genes involved in regulating cell death and other tumor-killing mechanisms than their close relatives rats and mice do. The team also found self-replicating pieces of DNA called SINEs that help protect the animals from low-oxygen and high-carbon dioxide conditions. 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated June 24, 2014, to remove the incorrect assertion that blind mole-rats lack eyes. They actually have eyes, but they are atrophied and covered with skin.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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