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How The Burmese Python Mastered Extreme Adaptation


The human genome has been in the spotlight for nearly a decade now, but some researchers say we can learn a lot about ourselves from sequencing the genomes of other animals — like snakes. A team of scientists led by a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington sequenced the full genome of a Burmese python for the first time, and discovered just how extreme the reptile is.

The Burmese python is an extreme eater – it can go months, even years without a meal. Then, when it comes time to chow down, the snake strangles, kills, and consumes prey sometimes equal to its own body weight.

“That’s the equivalent of me at a single sitting eating a 200 pond big mac,” says Todd Castoe. Castoe is an associate professor of biology at UTArlingtonand lead author in the new genome study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He says the instant the python eats after a period of fasting, its body kicks into an amazing overdrive, cranking up its metabolism to 40 times its usual rate and doubling the size of its kidney, liver and gut – all in in period of a few days.

We’re More Like Snakes Than You Might Have Thought

Now snakes – especially Burmese pythons, which can grow up to 18 feet – may look nothing like us, but as vertebrae, Castoe says they actually have a very similar set of genes – around 25,000 of them.

“If they have the same set of genes as we do,” Castoe says, “Maybe we could learn to use that same set of genes to turn on some of these amazing feats of remodeling to help to treat diseases.”

Illnesses like diabetes, hepatitis, even heart disease. For example, the snake’s ability to rebuild organs that have shrunk could help cancer patients whose stomachs have been damaged from chemotherapy.

“If we knew how an [adult] vertebrate could regrow organ tissue like heart tissue, we might be able to figure out how to manipulate those same shared genes,” Castoe says.

Todd Castoe of the University of Texas, Arlington, explains “Nature’s Extremes” in this YouTube video.

Rapid Growth, Rapid Evolution

When the team of scientists looked at the genes involved in the pre-and post-digestion of prey in pythons they were surprised by two findings. First, the large number of genes the snake turns on and off – hundreds – “is unprecedented,” Castoe says, and second, the genes are ones usually associated with early embryonic growth, even though these are adult snakes.

“Pythons are sort of tapping into genes we only use really early in development and sort of re-undergoing development to make their organs work at high rates to digest these prey.”

Castoe says people assume reptile genes change very slowly, but this first snake sequencing project shows they’re evolving at one of the fastest rates for any vertebrate.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.