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The big hearts of pythons
Adult Burmese python digesting a meal of rats.
[Image courtesy of Stephen M. Secor]
Pythons can go a full year without food, and once they do score a meal, their heart nearly doubles in size. Since the snake's heart-ballooning after a meal is similar to the heart growth seen in people who exercise a lot, like Olympic athletes, studying snake hearts could help scientists figure out how to make human hearts healthier.
A recent study in the journal Science shows that special molecules called specific fatty acids and triglycerides circulating in python plasma trigger heart growth.
Native to the green jungles of Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons are among the largest snakes on Earth. They are capable of reaching lengths longer than a telephone pole and weighing up to 200 pounds.
Burmese pythons typically eat small mammals and birds. They have poor eyesight, and stalk prey using chemical receptors in their tongues and heat-sensors along the jaws.
Would you want to keep several of these in your basement lab? Leslie Leinwand and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder did. Five years ago, they ordered a box of pythons for experiments and got to work studying the genes of these animals.
Leslie Leinwand and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder fed these fatty acids to both python and mouse heart cells in the lab stimulated signaling pathways associated with beneficial heart growth.
In another set of experiments, infusion of the fatty acids into pythons or mice resulted in an increase in heart mass, the team found. The results unravel some of the mystery surrounding pythons' big hearts.