Groundhogs may hold the secret to longevity

(ORDO NEWS) — Aging may not be the same for everyone. This inequality is due to the difference between a person’s chronological age – how old they are in years – and biological age, that is, how their body ages naturally and in response to the environment.

These two factors can diverge in both blessed and cursed directions. Therefore, those who grew up in conditions of high stress or a polluted environment may look much older than their years.

And yellow-bellied marmots can tell us something about these two ages.

Yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventer) are not burrowing meteorologists like the groundhog. They may seem cowardly, but these bizarre animals, also known as whistlers, are interesting objects to study: cat-sized rodents have longer lifespans than would be expected for mammals of their size. On average, marmots live 15 years.

For nine months of the year, these cuties protect their fluffy yellow bellies from the cold winters of the Rocky Mountains while in deep hibernation.

Many mammals hibernate, such as bears and squirrels, but marmots have one of the longest hibernation seasons. Hibernation can not only protect animals from the elements during a period of food shortage. It can completely stop aging.

A new study by a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the journal Nature in early March, tests the hypothesis that groundhogs completely stop biological aging during hibernation. Researchers believe that hibernating groundhogs might do something.

WHAT’S NEW – Indeed, the results of the study were consistent with the hypothesis that biological aging stops during hibernation.

Hibernation is not just sleep, it is a physiological state. When a groundhog hibernates, its metabolism slows down dramatically, and its body temperature can drop to 5 degrees Celsius, or just above zero.

According to study author Dan Blumstein, a professor of biology at the University of California, he burns up to one gram of fat per day, which is a lot for a rodent weighing 6 kilograms (13 pounds). This transformation completely changes the animal.

“It feels like a cold, fluffy rock,” Blumstein says. Turning into a cold stone can stop many of the processes that accelerate aging.”

The study’s lead author, Gabriela Piño, followed the biological aging process of 73 groundhogs by examining their epigenetic changes, which are numerous natural changes that occur in human DNA over time. She studied these changes for an epigenetic marker.

“This is currently the best marker we have for assessing biological aging,” she says. “They are the most accurate.” Piño completed this research while she was a Ph.D. at the University of California. She now works in Brazil for the environmental NGO Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas.

She found that few epigenetic changes occurred during hibernation, meaning that the biological age of the groundhogs did not change.

Why it is important – Biologists understand hibernation as an adapted survival strategy. It is logical to assume that the longevity of marmots is due to the fact that they spend more than half of the calendar year protected in their burrows. They can’t be victims if they don’t cross the road, right?

Pignot’s approach to marmot longevity considered a biological mechanism in addition to environmental factors. To her knowledge, her team is the first to look at epigenetic markers as signs of groundhog aging during hibernation.

“We’re just trying to understand how groundhogs work, how they can achieve lifespans that are much higher than other species,” she says.

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