Deep-sea scavengers are easily overlooked in the world of marine wildlife. Some find their cold, slimy bodies grotesque, and the fact that they chow on the flesh of dead carcasses that fall to the ocean floor makes them even more unattractive. For example, hagfish are a species of nearly blind, boneless, slime-producing fish that could make any child scream. However, to perform their job in the ecosystem, their anatomy is unique and, in many ways, more capable than human bodies. Hagfish thrive in deep water where oxygen is scarce, and their bodies have evolved accordingly.
One of the specialized systems in a hagfish body is the heart. Their hearts can continue beating for 36 hours without oxygen, setting a record in the category of anoxia-tolerant fish. A human heart exposed to the same conditions would be permanently damaged after only minutes. A research group at the University of Guelph has started to uncover the mystery behind how a hagfish heart can survive without oxygen.
Tissue damage due to anoxic conditions in humans results from the lack of cellular energy when oxygen is removed. With this knowledge, the group began testing alternative energy sources, glucose and glycerol, for the hagfish heart when oxygen was no longer available. “If you treated a mammalian heart in a similar manner, it would quickly stop beating and become permanently damaged,” said Dr. Gillis on the research team, “But the hagfish heart continues to generate enough electrical potential to keep working. They’re kind of like zombie hearts; they literally will just keep beating.” From their research experiment, the group believes that glycerol stimulates the most cardiac activity in the absence of oxygen; however, they are still unsure how this stimulation occurs.
There are still many unknown variables surrounding the hagfish’s distinct anatomy. However, understanding the ability of a hagfish heart to survive anoxic conditions creates potential for human medical science to expand as well. This information may become relevant in repairing or protecting the human heart when oxygen delivery is interrupted, for example during a heart attack or heart transplant.
Hagfish are not the only deep-sea fish with a unique characteristic. To learn about other deep-sea experts, feel free to read this article.
Are there any other marine organism anomalies or abilities that you can think of that we also connect to the medical field?
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