What if, after a big meal, your heart suddenly grew forty percent larger? For Burmese pythons, that's no heart racing surprise!
Pythons don't eat very often, but when they do, it's a big deal. About a day after devouring its prey, the python begins taking in ten to forty times the amount of oxygen it uses when resting, and its heart increases the production of myosin, a muscle protein. Feeding sparks this slithery beast's heart to pump really hard, as though it were exercising, and myosin makes it grow larger.
This elevated metabolic state lasts for a whopping seven to fourteen days. Why so long? Since pythons eat so rarely, they actually let their digestive system atrophy, so when they do eat, they have to rebuild their entire system!
At the University of California, Irvine, physiologist James Hicks has been studying the snake's heart and lungs and found some interesting applications for the python's biology...
Hicks: "These animals could become an interesting model to study the fundamental mechanisms that are involved in the remodeling of the heart."
Understanding how the snake's heart reacts during the "exercise" of feeding gives researchers clues to how the human heart responds to increased aerobic activity. Resulting new treatments might also warm the hearts of those suffering from cardiac diseases. I'm Eric Phillips.
"Imagine That!" covers projects funded by the U.S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you by you! Learn more at nsf.gov.