Science 3 min read

New Alligator Heart Study Could Help Treat Cardiomyopathy

Scientists discovered that being exposed to a hypoxic environment during early life development helps an alligator heart grow bigger and stronger. This finding could allegedly help improve treatment of cardiomyopathy in humans.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay

Low oxygen at the early stages of life development could damage the heart of many creatures, but not all. Instead of hurting alligator heart, restricted oxygen makes it bigger and stronger.

In a publication in Scientific Reports, the researchers at the University of Guelph explained why.

Compared with siblings that had access to air in the embryo, alligators that develop under low oxygen condition – hypoxia – emerge with a bigger and stronger heart.

Their heart also seems to perform better during exertion. As a result, the gators could hold their breathe longer and endure through a long chase.

In an attempt to understand why the hypoxic gator heart is so efficient, the researchers set out to identify the protein differences.

Co-author of the study and adjunct professor in U of G’s Department of Integrative Biology, Sarah Alderman said: 

“Alligators have walked this planet far longer than humans have, and they haven’t changed much in that time. So, whatever their hearts are doing, they are doing really well.”

So, the researchers studied why alligator heart is so resilient with the hope of applying it in humans.

Examining Alligator Heart

For the study, colleagues at the University of North Texas sent alligator hearts whose eggs had been incubated with hypoxia to the research team. Then, the team analyzed the proteins in these hearts using a method they called “shotgun proteomics.”

They discovered that the hypoxic condition in the egg caused a shift in the abundance of specific molecules. These include the ones used for making heart proteins and integrating the proteins into their cell.

The low oxygen condition also affected the molecules responsible for removing and recycling damaged proteins in the heart. Furthermore, most of these changes remained two years later, in the young heart of the alligators raised in hypoxia.

The researchers also noted that the hypoxic hearts had more proteins which break down the fats or lipids necessary for energy.

According to Alderman:

“Hearts are most efficient when they burn fats for energy. But in humans, when the heart progresses into heart failure, it switches to burning sugars.”

An alligator heart raised in low oxygen conditions develops an ability to use lipids for energy as it ages. The researchers suggest that this could be the reason hypoxia doesn’t seem to affect them as it would a developing human heart.

Although the Texas team could only study the alligators until they were two years old, they believe the protein expression in the heart is permanent.

Making a Stronger Human Heart

According to a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, Prof. Todd Gills, the study has a significant potential to benefit people with cardiomyopathy. It shows how environmental condition during embryonic development could affect the subsequent health of the adult

However, to apply the findings to humans with weakened heart, Gills stated that the researchers must first identify the mechanisms that trigger the changes in protein expression.

“If you could find a way to turn on these pathways and then maintain that, that could be a way of improving cardiac function and keeping the heart healthy,” he says.

Read More: Programming the Heart to Survive in Low-Oxygen Environments

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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