On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

When Radiohead first toured, their audiences just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to play a show in Israel – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to tour America – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  At festivals, people walked away after they played it.  By then the song was several years old.  The dudes in Radiohead were sick of it.

To be fair, Pablo Honey was a pretty weak album.  “You” is a fine song, but the proffered singles – “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (more ironic in retrospect than it was at the time) and “Stop Whispering” – aren’t very compelling.  At the time, nobody knew their new material.

Now, of course, Radiohead is many people’s favorite band – mine too (tied with The Marshall Cloud and anything else my brother makes).

The essayist Eliot Weinberger has also toured on the strength of a hit single.  From Christopher Byrd’s 2016 profile in The New Yorker:

EliotWeinbergerBW350In person, Weinberger is genial and self-contained; he smiles frequently and is prone to wisecracks.  When I asked him about the essay [“Naked Mole-Rats,” from his 2001 collection, Karmic Traces], he said “In Germany, I’m sort of like one of those bands that had one hit record, and so I give readings and people ask me to read ‘Nacktmull,’ which is the naked mole-rat.  It’s their favorite one.  This pretty girl said, ‘Last night, I was in bed reading it to my boyfriend.’  And I said, ‘Don’t you have anything better to read?’”

Yet, like Radiohead, Weinberger has released new work every few years – he seems to have been writing constantly ever since he dropped out of college circa 1970 and began translating the poetry of Octavio Paz – and much of it is better than the hit everybody knows.  Over the past two months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading all his books – many are stunning.  The Ghosts of Birds discuses Adam & Eve, the dreams of ancient Chinese poets, and the authorial voice of George W. Bush’s “autobiography.”  I’ve written previously about What Happened Here, a collection of Weinberger’s essays about the Bush years.  And Weinberger has written extensively about the political value of poetry.  From “The T’ang” (in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale):

…[I]n the last years of the dynasty, warlords ravished the country.  One of them, Huang Ch’ao, a salt merchant who had failed the civil service exams, captured Ch’ang-an in 881.  A satiric poem was posted on the wall of a government building, criticizing the new regime.  (As, eleven hundred years later, the Democracy Movement would begin with the poems that Bei Dao and other young poets glued to the walls in their capital, Beijing.)  Huang Ch’ao issued orders that everyone capable of writing such a poem be put to death.  Three thousand were killed.

When dudes ask what we’re doing teaching a poetry class in jail, it’s great to have stories like this to relate … or to toss out a quote from Norman Dubie, my co-teacher’s advisor, who says, “If Stalin feared poetry, so should you.

And yet, I have to admit: Weinberger’s “Naked Mole-Rats” really is a lovely essay.

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During the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a series of lectures describing conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates.  Alexander was a bug guy – the term “eusocial” refers to bees, ants, and termites, where individuals are extremely self-sacrificing for the good of the colony, including an abundance of non-breeding members helping with childcare.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial species of mammal could evolve if they lived in relatively safe underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.  The animals would need to be small compared to their food sources, so that a stroke of good luck by one worker could feed many.

thebioofnakedAn audience member at one of Alexander’s lectures mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat and connected Alexander with Jennifer Jarvis, who’d studied the biology of these critters but hadn’t yet investigated their their social structure.  The collaboration between Alexander and Jarvis led to the textbook The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger combed through this 500-plus page textbook to produce his 3-page essay.  In Weinberger’s words:

As many as three hundred inhabit a colony, moving a ton of dirt every month.  They have a caste system

The medium sized are the warriors, who try to fend off the rufous-beaked snaked, the file snakes, the white-lipped snakes, and the sand boas that sometimes find their way in.When, by chance, two colonies of naked mole-rats tunnel into each other, their warriors fight to the death.

Interbred for so long, they are virtually clones.  One dead-end branch of the tunnel is their toilet: they wallow there in the soaked earth so that all will smell alike.  They are nearly always touching each other, rubbing noses, pawing, nuzzling.

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  Encountering outsiders, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Naked mole-rats care for others.  Naked mole-rats are callous toward others.

[The breeding female, of which each colony has only one] has four or five litters a year of a dozen pups.  The babies have transparent skin through which their internal organs are clearly visible.  Only a few survive, and they live long lives, twenty years or more.  The dead babies are eaten, except for their heads.  At times the live ones are eaten too.

These details are drawn from innumerable experimental observations.  We humans have spent decades investigating the naked mole-rats.  But Weinberger ends his essay with the reverse.  Naked mole-rats observe us, too:

Sometimes a naked mole-rat will suddenly stop, stand on its hind-legs, and remain motionless, its head pressed against the roof of the tunnel.  Above its head is the civil war in Somalia.  Their hearing is acute.

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Naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes.  After all, the cruelty of naked mole-rats is invariably directed to others of their own kind.  Our cruelty embraces ourselves as well as them.

For a research paper published in 2008, Park et al. discovered that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but the injection of caustic acid does not:

We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical (pinch), thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that for noxious pinch and heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.

In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants known to excite nociceptors [these are sensory receptors that detect noxious inputs, like pain].  Indeed, the two chemicals used – capsaicin and low-pH saline solution – normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either irritant into the skin rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.

(In case you’re worried that acid-resistant naked mole-rats might conquer the world: a form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.)

So, naked mole-rats are selectively resistant to pain.  This has inspired some envy in human researchers – after all, chronic pain is miserable, and most of our strategies to dampen pain have a few unwanted side-effects.

But what really gets us humans jealous is that naked mole-rats seem not to age.

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Naked mole-rats almost never develop cancer.  They should get cancer.  After all, their cells, like ours, copy themselves.  Over time, each copy is a copy of a copy of a copy… any errors are compounded.  And some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch each other, and they are supposed to commit suicide when their usefulness has run its course.  But the instructions telling our cells when and how to kill themselves can be lost, just like any other information.  Too many rounds of cell division is like making photocopies of photocopies… eventually the letters melt into static and become unreadable.

So I don’t quite understand why naked mole-rats don’t get cancer … but, in my defense, no one else does either.  Tian et al. found that naked mole-rats fill the space between their cells with a particular sugar that acts as an anti-clumping agent.  This contributes to their cancer resistance, because cells that can’t clump can’t form tumors… but, although many types of deadly human cancers form tumors, others, like leukemia, do not.

Lung_cancer_cell_during_cell_division-NIH.jpgOf course, “cancer” cells – mutant versions of ourselves that would kill us if they could – appear all the time.  Usually, our immune system destroys them.  Most chemotherapy agents do not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy involves pumping the body full of general poisons that stop all cells from reproducing, with the hope being that, if the spread of cancer can be slowed, a patient’s immune system will sop up the bad cells already there.

In addition to anti-clumping sugars, naked mole-rats must have other (currently unknown) virtues that enable their remarkable tenacity.

And, although the little critters seem not to age – they have “no age-related increase in mortality” and remain fertile until death – they do die.  The oldest naked mole-rat lived for 27 years in captivity, and seems to have been at least a year old when first captured, based on his size.

He was rutting and eating normally until April, 2002… but then, seemingly without cause, he died.  Writing for Scientific American shortly after this duder’s death, David Stipp described him (and naked mole-rats in general) as “a little buck-toothed burrower [who] ages like a demigod.”

But it’s worth noting that he had aged.  He had accumulated extensive oxidative damage in his lipids, proteins, and, presumably, his DNA… which is to say, his cells were noticeably rusted and falling apart.  He just didn’t let it slow him down.  Not until he keeled over.

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

For as long as they energy, that is.  Several researchers have proposed that naked mole-rats have all these powers because they starve often in the wild.

Caloric restriction – which means, roughly, intentional starvation – is known to extend lifespan in a wide variety of species.  It’s been tested in monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Between two- and ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.  There are some unpleasant side effects.  Hunger, for instance.  Caloric-restricted mice spend a lot of time staring at their empty food bowls.

Many humans who attempt caloric restriction on their own find it difficult.  Hunger hurts, especially when there’s food nearby.  Plus, it’s a rare diet that provides adequate nutrition while still limiting calories.  Malnutrition makes people die younger, which defeats the point… unless your goal is simply to make God uncomfortable.  Maybe you’ll get a wish!

But naked mole-rats have no choice.  Workers tunnel outward, searching for tuberous roots.  When they find one, they’ll gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible, but the colony invariably consumes roots faster than a plant can grow.  Although naked mole-rats try to be good stewards of their environment – they are compulsive recyclers, eating their own excrement to make sure no nutrients are lost – their colonies plunge repeatedly into famine.

And they sleep in mounds, hundreds of bodies respiring underground.  Anyone sleeping near the center probably runs out of oxygen.

But they survive.

We would not.  Most mammals, deprived of oxygen, can no longer fuel their brains.  Our brains are expensive.  Even at rest our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.  This is apparently an unpleasant experience.  It’s brief, though.  At Stanford, my desk was adjacent to a well-trafficked gas chamber.  A mouse, or a Chinese-food takeout container with several mice, was dropped in; a valve for carbon dioxide was opened; within seconds, the mice inside lost consciousness; they shat; they died.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the carbon dioxide flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Park et al. – a graph from their recent Science paper is shown below.  Somewhere between three and twelve animals were used for every time point; all the mice would’ve been dead within a minute, but perhaps as few as three naked mole-rats died in this experiment.

survival curves

Human brains are like hummingbirds – our brains drink up sugar and give us nothing but a fleeting bit of beauty in return.  And our brains are very persnickety in their taste for sugar.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less fussy than we are – their minds will slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats: the most cooperative of all mammals.  Resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  Aging with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner.  Able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all those superpowers, quite easily tormented by human researchers.

On fear.

On fear.

cta_brown_line_060716We recently visited my brother and our Auntie Ferret in Chicago.  Traveling with two young kids was difficult, but not impossible.  N held my hand while we strolled down the sidewalk and we did the five-hour drives to and from the city while she and her brother were sleeping in their car seats.

When we returned to Bloomington, I excitedly regaled staff at the YMCA “play and learn” childcare area with our adventures: we went to Restaurant Depot!  A grocery store where you can buy a six-pound tub of chili garlic paste!  It was magical!

One woman shuddered slightly: “Chicago?  I’m afraid to go there.”

Based on that statement alone, I’d bet large sums of money that she voted for Donald Trump.

Which isn’t such a bad bet.  He lost the popular vote, and Bloomington is a liberal isle in the midst of southern Indiana, but… this is southern Indiana, after all.  Trump garnered a lot of votes here.

And he campaigned on fear.

It’s not the best emotion, fear.  It’s no hope, for instance.  I’d say fear is far worse than whatever emotion best characterizes the recent Clinton campaign, even though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is… scorn?  Which isn’t good, but I’d swallow my pride and vote for smarmy self-satisfied scorn over fear any day (as in fact I did).

banksyfollowyourdreamsWe’re already seeing the awful consequences of fear: an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from a few (poor, Trump-property-less) countries that people here fear.  Yes, it looks like children are drowning as families flee the civil war (sparked by climate change from our pollution).  But what if those deaths are all part of an evil ploy by ISIS (not Daesh, not ISIL) operatives to infiltrate the United States?

The ban is misguided and heartless, obviously.  But it’s hardly the worst that fear can do.  Because fear inspires attack.

Which is a fascinating research finding.  Terrifying, yes, given our current political situation.  But still fascinating.  You get it all here: mind control… senseless violence… and… killer mice?

Back in 2005, Comoli et al. found that hunting seemed to activate a pattern of neurons in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for fear in a wide variety of mammals, including humans.

So… what would happen if you suddenly activated those neurons?

Usually, neurons are activated only when we think.  Our thoughts are patterns of neuron activations, and they cause further activations, which means we get to keep thinking, on and on as we learn and grow… until we die.  Then the activations stop.

picture-1Each of these “activations” is a flow of electricity from one of the cell to the other.  Neurons are lined by “voltage-gated ion channels,” and these let signals flow.  Ions entering through one gate cause nearby gates to open.  After a gate opens, though, it takes a while to recharge, which causes the current flow in a single direction.

And that’s how you can create a Manchurian candidate.  Instead of hypnosis – conditioning Sinatra to flip when he spots a playing card – you infect neurons with new ion channels that open when you shine laser light on them.  Make a recombinant virus, load it into a syringe, and plunge that needle into the brain!

The laser causes your new ion channels to open, and then, once they do, all the others respond, creating a flow of current.  The signal becomes indistinguishable from any other thought.  Except that whoever holds the laser is in control.

Wenfei Han et al., for the study “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala,” took some mice and infected their amygdalas with these light-activated channels… and found that they’d created killing machines.  In their words:

When a non-edible item was placed in the cage, laser activation caused the otherwise indifferent mice to immediately assume a ‘capture-like’ body posture and seize the object, which was then held with the forepaws and bitten.  Behavior was interrupted immediately upon laser deactivation.

Light on… attack!  Light off… whoa, what was I doing?

mouse attacking.jpg

From Han et al.:

Generally, upon laser activation, mice readily seize, bite, and often ingest, non-edible objects, an effect that was modulated by internal state.  Laser activation also abolished natural preferences for edible over non-edible items.

When left to their own devices, mice will hunt crickets (although it’s worth noting that “Consistently, by employing the cricket-hunting paradigm, [laser activation] shortened the time needed for mice to capture and subdue their prey.  Captured crickets were immediately eaten.”), but the mind-control lasers cause them to hunt anything.

Well, almost anything.

Activation did not induce attacks on “conspecifics,” that is, their fellow mice.  But human psychology seems to allow great flexibility in distinguishing between our own kind and others.  When a mouse sees a mouse, it’ll know it’s a mouse.  But we are so tribal that when one Homo sapiens sees another, the knowledge of shared humanity is often clouded over.  Instead of recognizing a human, we might see a Syrian, or a Muslim, or an “illegal,” or a Republican, or a criminal.

A mouse won’t hunt another mouse, but we humans are great at attacking our own.

Of course, we don’t know for certain that humans would attack so single-mindedly if we activated neurons in the amygdala.  We conduct only voluntary research on humans, and it seems unlikely that many people would sign up for an experiment involving the injection of viruses into the brain (which causes the infected neurons to become light-activated), intentional lesions between various brain regions (to isolate activities like hunting and eating – a quick slice lets researchers permanently uncouple those thought patterns), and euthanasia (to dissect the brain at the experiment’s end).

mouse-801843_1920The mice used in these studies – or any other research studies, since mice aren’t even considered “animals” for the purposes of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act – did not fare particularly well.  Far worse than the impoverished or imprisoned Homo sapiens whose “voluntary” research participation is induced by the offer of a piddling amount of cash or less mistreatment inside.

But now we know.  Inspire sufficient fear, trigger attack.  We’ll find an other – edible or not, deserving or not – and try to kill it.

People who felt afraid voted for Trump… and he has been using his social media megaphone to inflame their fears further ever since… and if we don’t calm those fears, war is coming.

Terrorism is scary.  But can we get a little more “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” around here?