Naked mole-rats suppress energy metabolism and modulate membrane cholesterol in chronic hypoxia

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2020 Aug 1;319(2):R148-R155. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00057.2020. Epub 2020 Jun 17.


Naked mole-rats (NMRs) are mammalian champions of hypoxia tolerance that enter metabolic suppression to survive in low oxygen environments. Common physiological mechanisms used by animals to suppress metabolic rate include downregulating energy metabolism (ATP supply) as well as ion pumps (primary cellular ATP consumers). A recent goldfish study demonstrated that remodeling of membrane lipids may mediate these responses, but it is unknown if NMR employs the same strategies; therefore, we aimed to test the hypotheses that these fossorial mammals 1) downregulate the activity of key enzymes of glycolysis, tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, and β-oxidation, 2) inhibit sodium-potassium-ATPase, and 3) alter membrane lipids in response to chronic hypoxia. We found that NMRs exposed to 11% oxygen for 4 wk had a lower metabolic rate by 34%. This suppression occurs concurrently with tissue-specific 25-99% decreases in metabolic enzymes activities, a 77% decrease in brain sodium/potassium-ATPase activity, and widespread changes in membrane cholesterol abundance. By reducing glycolytic and β-oxidation fluxes, NMRs decrease the supply of acetyl-CoA to the TCA cycle. By contrast, there is a 94% upregulation of citrate synthase in the heart, possibly to support circulation and thus oxygen supply to other organs. Taken together, these responses may reflect a coordinated physiological response to hypoxia, but a clear functional link between changes in membrane composition and enzyme activities could not be established. Nevertheless, this is the first demonstration that hypometabolic NMRs alter the lipid composition of their membranes in response to chronic in vivo exposure to hypoxia.

Keywords: enzymes; hypoxia tolerance; membrane lipids; metabolic suppression; sodium/potassium ATPase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cholesterol / metabolism*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Hypoxia / metabolism*
  • Mole Rats
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Sodium-Potassium-Exchanging ATPase / metabolism*


  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium-Potassium-Exchanging ATPase
  • Oxygen