After Burmese pythons enjoy a meal, they undergo an extended period of fasting to save on energy. During this time, which can last as long as a year, their organs waste away.
According to researchers in Texas, when the pythons get around to feeding again, their atrophied major organs increase in mass by 40 to 100 percent to prepare for digestion—apparently it takes a lot to swallow a mouse whole. Within 48 hours of feeding, in fact, Burmese pythons can see up to a 44-fold increase in their metabolism. Their research is described the journal in BMC Genomics.
Pythons spend probably 95 per cent of their lives fasting, said lead author Todd Castoe, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas at Arlington and an expert in snake genomics. Rather than have their organs using up all the precious energy during the fasting period, they let them waste away. In this study, pythons were fed in the lab every 30 days, but according to Castoe, going that long without food is nothing for these snakes compared to what they can face in the wild.
"Anecdotally a python can go more than a year, easily," he said.
To observe the changes in pythons during their fast, the researchers compared gene expressions in snakes who were fasting to others who were one day post-feeding, and also to another group that was four days post-feeding. Using supercomputing and data analysis resources at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, they identified 1,700 genes and found that certain key sets were influencing changes in these snakes' organ structure.
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Humans could benefit from tissue and organ regeneration, too. According to the researchers, mammalian cells have responded to blood taken from pythons, although that's really preliminary and a lot more work needs to be done. Still, they think that their research could eventually be used to help heal humans.
"We know that if you put serum on rat heart cells they grow, and it looks like they do the same thing that snake hearts do after feeding," said Castoe. "What we're not sure of if the molecules involved are all the same or not, but that's one thing we're really interested in."
A few other snakes, like boa constrictors and rattlesnakes, can also regenerate their organs. Castoe would like to understand how these other snakes do it, and see what they have in common with pythons.
"This is to see if we can subtract out the python specific stuff to see what's common and shared in all of these species to really identify what's the absolute essential pieces of this process," he said. "We don't really care, ultimately, about how python biology works, we care about how biology works."
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