Gene Thwarters

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    Researchers found that microRNAs in naked mole rats slow energy-draining processes such as protein production and cell multiplying. (AP/Joerg Sarbach)
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    A brown bear wakes up after winter hibernation at Ranua Zoo in Ranua, Finland. Bears use hypometabolism when they hibernate. (AP/LEHTIKUVA, Kaisa Siren)
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    Wood frogs can survive being completely frozen without brain damage. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
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    MicroRNAs help African clawed frogs tolerate severe dehydration well. (Brian Gratwicke/CC BY 2.0)
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    Amy Shives, left, watches her husband George make mashed potatoes in Spokane, Washington. Shives has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that causes brain cells to die. Could this research one day help people like her? (AP/Young Kwak)
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The brain controls almost every function of the body. Yet despite its importance, this essential organ is quite fragile. As far as scientists know, brain cells don’t regenerate: So when brain cells die, they die.

God designed many cells to divide, replenishing themselves for healing in case of injury. But neurons (nerve cells) do not divide. That’s why injuries involving cell death in the brain—like concussions, strokes, and head trauma—are serious and, in general, long-lasting.

But many living organisms regularly survive and thrive in conditions involving dehydration, low temperatures, or low oxygen: all environments that would usually be lethal to the human brain’s neurons.

Scientists from Carleton University found that some animals are able to slow down certain processes—heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and so on. They call this hypometabolism (hypo = less than, metabolism = chemical process that maintains life). Animals that use hypometabolism include ground squirrels and bears. Both hibernate. Snails and certain frogs enter a state of inactivity to survive periods of drought. Some frog species can survive freezing solid in frigid cold!

The investigation into hypometabolism focused on how microRNA molecules help neurons survive extreme conditions.

MicroRNAs are ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragments. They stop genes from producing certain proteins. In simple terms, microRNAs change how a gene works—without changing the gene itself. So when the trauma is over, the gene continues to operate the way it did before the event.

The research studied a wood frog that can survive being completely frozen for extended periods without brain damage. Normally, when tissues freeze, they lose blood flow. Blood flow interruption almost always causes severe brain damage and even cell death in living creatures. In humans, cutting off blood to the brain causes some strokes. But the wood frog’s microRNAs allow its cells to endure drastic temperature changes and keep blood moving.

Other studies found evidence of microRNAs in response to extreme dehydration in African clawed frogs and reduced oxygen supplies in underground-dwelling naked mole rats. In the case of the mole rats, microRNAs slow energy-draining processes such as protein production and cell multiplying.

MicroRNAs show great potential. Scientists are working to understand how they help prevent brain and other types of tissue damage in animals. Eventually, they hope to use them to treat humans suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, insomnia, and many more conditions. As biologist and researcher Steve Kay says, “This is the whole crazy world of . . . microRNA.”

Why? The Creator’s wisdom is on display in all His works. Scientists continue to research the functions of frogs, naked mole rats, and more to unlock and apply the complexities of every living thing.