The Long, Strange Life of the World’s Oldest Naked Mouse

Joe has seen dynasties rise and fall. He and his colony companions spent their years cleaning the nest, caring for the queen, and guarding against intruders as designated workers or xenophobic soldiers. Most of them live a relatively healthy life. And because they live in deep burrows in the desert, mole mice have few natural predators.

so what do kill a naked mouse “They fight,” says Martha Delaney, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Illinois. Naked mice are extreme xenophobes. They attacked the foreigners, pushed and bit each other, and hunted down the members of the colony as hunted.

“They’re beautiful, beautiful animals,” Melissa Holmes says with great sincerity. Holmes is a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Toronto who works with more than 1,000 naked mice. The internal functioning of the strange eusocial structure of soft mice earns them a reputation for aggression. “But for animals that live in such large groups, they’re very stable,” he says.

Holmes has had his colonies for 12 years. “And in some of my colonies, we’ve never had an injury, ever,” she says. “It’s amazing – that animals have been living together for years with this lack of aggression.”

It’s not that naked mice never get old or get sick. They do. But their bodies somehow slow down these processes. As typical mammalian bones become more fragile and thinner over the years, table mouse bones maintained the same mineral content and remain however solid. People tend to get fatter with age. Naked mole mice? No.

“But the smallest system,” says Buffenstein, “is cardiovascular.” Human veins and arteries normally stiffen over time. The stiffer those walls are, the more the heart will pump. Blood pressure rises. Risk of death go up. The blood vessels of the naked mouse remain soft for life. “Every measurement we see in heart function doesn’t change from six months to 24 years,” he says.

In humans, heart disease is the leading cause of death. Cancer is second. Look up 40 percent of people in the United States developing cancer in their lifetime. For naked mice, the probability is well below 1 percent. In a 2008 study, Buffenstein did not report any cancer in a group of 800 mole mice. Since 2021, Buffenstein says she has found only five tumors in more than 3,000 autopsies.

“They age very well,” says Delaney. “They’re very well adapted, just like a physiological marvel.” Delaney mainly studies naked mice in zoos, scanning biopsies and slices of tissue to bite how they died. She found a few tumors in two naked mice (“after evaluating hundreds and hundreds,” she says). Nor has the cancer been fatal. Naked mole mice develop rene and brain injuries with age, but those rarely turn into disease.

This unexpected resilience means that there may be something in their biology that we can capture in pill form — or perhaps one day as gene therapy — for humans. “And that’s why I think they’re so popular right now,” says Delaney, “as research models for not only cancer, but age-related diseases.” But popular or not, the real payoff is elusive.

Scientists want it resolves what concerns our biology to mimic the longevity of the mouse mouse. Take the cancer. Mole mice are so large to prevent cancer that researchers think their cells could be wired with protective molecules that stop the mutated cells from recovering. For example, the cells of naked mole rats accumulate large amounts of a protein called p53, which is known to suppress tumors. Last year, Buffenstein said they show up 10 times more in its connective tissue than in humans and mice – and is more stable.

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