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New insights into blind mole rat’s adaptive capacity to extremes

Published online 10 July 2014

Aisha El-Awady

A team sequenced the genome of the subterranean blind mole rat, an excellent model for studying the genetic adaptation of mammals to the stresses of underground life.

The mole rat, or Spalax galili, lives in underground burrows to protect itself from predators and climatic changes. Because of its habitat, it has adapted to darkness, low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, increased exposure to pathogens and the high-energy demands of digging. 

A team of international researchers, including Jun Wang from King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, sequenced and analysed the genome and RNA molecules of the rodent to better understand its ability to adapt to extreme environments. 

They published their findings in Nature Communications.1 

The team found that when compared with rats and mice, the genomic adaptation of the blind mole rats included higher rates of alteration of the sequence of nucleotides in DNA and RNA (DNA and RNA editing), lower rates of structural change of the ancestor native chromosome (chromosome rearrangements) and an accumulation in very high copy numbers of short interspersed elements. 

These molecular adaptations, together with the evolution of genes associated with vision, evolution of certain placenta-specific genes and the modification of respiratory proteins, as well as the unique mechanism heightening necrosis and immunoinflammatory responses to partly replace apoptosis, are probably related to the blind mole rat’s response to darkness, its ability to withstand low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, and its unusual resistance to cancer. 

This information allows the use of these remarkable rodents as models for biomedical research in the battle against cancer, stroke and cardiovascular diseases. 


  1. Fang, X. et al. Genome-wide adaptive complexes to underground stresses in blind mole rats Spalax. Nature Commun. 5, 3966 (2014).