Naked mole-rats can survive without oxygen for up to 18 minutes.
Without it, the naked mole-rats switch their supply of energy from glucose sugars, which is what humans and all other mammals use, to fructose. That’s the sugars that plants use. (Glucose needs oxygen to be turned into energy but fructose doesn’t.)
In his first experiment with naked mole-rats, Thomas Park, a biologist at the University of Chicago, subjected the critters to air that contained only 5% oxygen. Normal air consists of 21% oxygen. Nothing happened. “After five hours we realized that this was not a problem for them,” said Park, “It was getting late and we said we need to go home and have dinner so we’re going to end this experiment arbitrarily, say the end is at five hours.”
Scientists then thrust the mole-rats into a chamber with no oxygen whatsoever.
“In full oxygen deprivation their heart rate goes very low, from about 200 beats per minute down to 35 or 40 beats per minute [and their] respiration rate gets very slow,” said Park, “They stop moving around. They become very inactive,” and go into a “suspended animation.”
It’s at this moment that the naked mole-rats release fructose into their bloodstream. Enzymes in their hearts and brains are able to convert the fructose to energy and keep the animals alive. When they are returned to an oxygen-rich environment, they snap back to life. “We call it being resurrected,” Park said.
If we figure out how this works, Park said, we might be able to find ways for humans to survive for periods without oxygen too.