Not only are naked mole rats known for their distinctive looks - best described as a ‘wrinkly sausage with teeth’ - they’re also famous for the fact that they are strongly resistant to developing cancer, unlike all other mammals. This unusual trait stems from the exceptionally large amounts of a sticky molecule produced by the rats’ cells, known as hyaluronan.
To figure out why the naked mole rats have this super-power, researchers at Queen Mary University of London studied the gene responsible for making hyaluronan, known as HAS2, in thirteen different species of mammals. They found that the naked mole rat’s HAS2 gene seems to be completely unique to them, differing significantly even from other closely-related mole rats.
The scientists hope that identifying the crucial genetic differences between the HAS2 gene in different species will shed light on the processes underlying the development of cancer, and even point towards ways to prevent tumours from forming in the first place.