Why the naked mole-rat is head and shoulders above us

Without a doubt, many fascinating creatures are living on our planet. One of the most extraordinary animals I ever learned about is the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber). The naked mole is a rodent, which lives in subterranean burrows in the east African countries Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as in parts of Kenia. The naked mole is obviously naked, has a poor eye-sight and the size of a small rat (not New York City rat-size!).

On top of its bizarre appearance, its eusocial organisation is unique among mammals; like bees and ants, the naked mole community consists of a queen, responsible for producing offspring, nurses, who raise the babies, and workers, who maintain the burrow. The tasks are distributed according to the age: Teenagers take care for their siblings, adults are working in the tunnels, and the strong and older naked mole colleagues become door keepers, who protect the community from invaders, like snakes. Only three males of the community and the queen are fertile. It is speculated, that a certain stress level, maintained by the queen, suppresses the growth of the ovaries of the other females. If the queen dies, other females can “relax” and become fertile. The one, which becomes pregnant first, will be the new queen.

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Even though the blind mole does not fit well in our concept of beauty, it is one step ahead of us: It features the Holy Grail of longevity! The naked mole can become 30 years old, which is ten times older than a mouse and around six times older than a rat. Researchers love the naked mole because they hope to decipher the principle of longevity by analyzing their lifestyle and metabolism. The secret is: The naked mole does not waste energy and resigns the luxury of a constant body temperature, it simply takes over the environmental temperature, which can vary between 12 °C und 32 °C. Further, the naked mole can adapt its metabolism rate according to the oxygen levels in the subterranean burrow, which can drop below 3% (air at sea level has 21 %!), if around 300 oxygen-consuming naked moles live in the badly ventilated tunnel system. The only reason the naked moles do not suffocate, is the increased oxygen binding capacity of their blood.

Longevity is not necessarily a reason to be jealous, because it comes with the cost of accumulating DNA-mutations, which can cause cancer. But not in the naked mole! On top of their long life, these guys are pretty resistant to cancer. They have highly active genes (p53 and Rb) that prevent cells from doing awkward things, like overcrowding and forming tumors. Additionally, they have a sugar called high-molecular-mass hyaluronic acid, which prevents cells from getting in contact. And here is the cherry on top (of the naked mole): they cannot feel pain. Naked moles are lacking Substance P, which is a mediator of pain.

In conclusion, naked moles are highly organized rodents ruled by a bitchy queen. Beside this drop of bitterness, they lead a long and happy life without the burden of pain and cancer. Who would not like that?

XOXO, your Nerd

You can meet Steve the blind mole here:




Welcome to Bistro In Vitro

I rarely eat meat but last week, I was in the mood for spaghetti Bolognese. So I got this obvious brown bag from the butcher’s counter in the supermarket and tried to hide it deep in my basket, covering it with a less reprehensible organic salad. It felt like buying a porn video (in an inconspicuous brown bag…). But why?

Eating meat becomes a social no-go among my friends – for a good reason! Global meat consumption reaches absurd dimensions; last year, 1.5 billion animals were slaughtered in the USA and about 750 million in the comparatively small country Germany. Our juicy steak comes with a bitter taste: most animals are kept in mass stocks under adverse conditions and are treated with hormones and antibiotics. But besides animals, nature suffers from greenhouse gases, produced by farting livestock, the massive transport of meat around the globe, cleared range land, and slaughter wastes.

Since social rethinking is a slow process and awareness cannot be enforced through all social classes, we have to work on the meat! Already in 1931, the English Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) came up with the idea, that we should only grow the parts of the animal, which we actually eat. Seventy years later, the first edible fish fillet, generated from goldfish stem cells, was presented to the public and in 2007, the In Vitro Meat Consortium was established. Supported by governments and non-profit organizations, researchers are working on how to feed the hungry, unreasonable world with meat. In 2013, the first in vitro burger was served by researchers from the Netherlands and the burger was evaluated as “ok” and “close to reality”. But with a production price of 250000 dollars, it was quite pricy…

The generate in vitro meat, a tiny piece of muscle is cut from the animal and a special group of cells, the myoblasts, are picked. Upon a certain stimulus, myoblasts divide and form muscle fibers. Theoretically, 10000 kg of meat could be produced from a 1 cm piece of muscle. In the laboratory, myoblasts need some support: they are grown in culture medium, which is similar to blood, and they can hold on to a kind of Velcro, which serves as anchor point, like a bone would do. On top of that, artificial vessels, created by a 3D-printer, provide the nutrient supply in bigger “pieces of meat”. Et voilà, that’s shmeat (sheet + meat)!

A burger patty is easy to create but a complex steak, marbled with fat, is a real challenge! But more than 30 research groups all over the world are taking this challenge and the results become more convincing. The price is still high, but costs will drop once a big scale production, following a routine protocol, will be established. The next hurdle to take is the acceptance of shmeat.

This all sounds frankensteinish to you? It definitely is, but visiting a slaughter house would maybe change your mind. If we cannot minimize our meat consumption, a compromise is necessary. Some years ago, genetic engineering of plants and in-vitro fertilization caused massive public disgust. Nowadays, we are (unwittingly) eating these plants and couples, who cannot have babies, get help in the laboratory. Growing organs for medical issues is the Holy Grail, but growing meat to feed the world is absurd?

Let’s think about the pros of shmeat:

  • reduction of antibiotic resistances and hormonal induced cancers in humans (because we take up, what the animal was fed)
  • better control of the contamination of meat
  • possibility to create healthier meat
  • fewer pests (no transport, no mass stocks)
  • more space for forests
  • less greenhouse gases
  • eating meat with a better conscience

The (resolvable) contras of shmeat:

  • decline of this branch of the economy
  • probably more expensive than real meat

Check, if you get a watery mouth by visiting Bistro In Vitro 😉

XOXO, your Nerd

Brave new world – utopia powered by CRISPR genome editing

Pandora’s Box was ultimately opened in 2012, and hope and fear in the shape of CRISPR technology were set free: enzymatic scissors of the bacterial immune system (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) can be used to highly selectively remove any DNA sequence and replace it with another, which enables us to re-design any organisms building plan.

“Utopia seems more realizable than ever before. (…) How can we prevent its final implementation? (…) Maybe a new century will come, in which the intellectual class will think about how to prevent utopia and how to return to a non-utopian society, less perfect but free“, Nikolai Berdjajew (1874-1948).

Now, CRISPR modified butterflies and koi carps with customized patterns are available – and this is just the kick-off for the quickly arising CRISPR zoo. Scientists are working on anti-allergic pets, mini-animals, the revival of the mammoth and the extinction of ticks and mosquitos. Also our livestock will be improved: an optimized rate of growth, no dangerous horns for cattle anymore and a disease-resistance for pigs.

Even though the mothers and fathers of CRISPR technology requested ethical awareness from their colleagues, Eve’s apple was too tempting and first reports of human embryo editing were released.

Should we really mess with nature? We have been manipulating nature for centuries by inbreeding of animals, controlled crossings of crop plant and more recently by in vitro-fertilization and attempts of cloning – but genome editing with CRISPR brings us a huge step closer to utopia: a brave new world without pests, populated by efficient, optimized animals and humans…

Are we ready for this?

XOXO, your Nerd


The smart and sexy scientist

Sometimes the spam filter fails and funny mails find their way through. Recently a friend forwarded me an email from a biotech supplier company, calling for smart scientists to submit sexy pics for a “Sexy Men and Women of Science“ calendar. The lucky winners will get 50% off on plasmids… We all know the sexy nurses, stewardesses, construction side workers and firemen calendars but sexy scientists, really?!

Do we spectacled nerds, who hardly find time to eat or sleep, not to mention workout, have the potential to be sexy? Sex sells, that‘s a fact but up to now no one ever dared to ask graduates to strip to the buff for plasmid discounts and infinite fame and glory as pin ups.

Is a participation  a nice add on for the CV? “Dear future boss, I don’t have a publication (yet) but I was Miss November!“. Could a participation be excused by the financially desperate situation of researchers in academia à la „I was young and needed that plasmid…“?

XOXO, your Nerd