How the Burmese Python's Extreme Body Changes Occur After It Eats

First Posted: May 19, 2015 09:57 AM EDT

The Burmese python has the amazing ability to eat massive meals, allowing its body to grow to massive proportions before shrinking as it digests. Now, scientists have discovered how this extreme body transformation takes place in these snakes.

When a Burmese python eats, it transforms. Within three days of eating, its organs expand up to double in size and its metabolism and digestive processes increase 10- to 44-fold. About 10 days after eating, the snake's meal is digested and these changes are reversed.

In this latest study, the researchers focused on the python's small intestine, which doubles in mass and nutrient-absorption rate during digestion. The researchers found that the expression of at least 2,000 genes changed after the snake ate. Surprisingly, though, most of the changes occurred within six hours after eating. Genes that changed included those involved with the intestine's structure and nutrient absorption, cell division and cell death.

The researchers also found that some of the morphing genes in the python's intestine, notably those in a signaling pathway called WNT, were genes that were involved in intestinal and other cancers. This suggests that the python intestine may actually be a model for studying the interactions of metabolism with the regulation of cell division and WNT signaling relevant to cancer.

This is the first time researchers have linked the extreme and rapid eating-induced changes of the Burmese python's intestines directly to changes in gene expression. It's also the first time scientists have shown how quickly gene expression changed.

The findings not only reveal a bit more about pythons, but also open future avenues of research for cancer.

The findings are published in the journal Physiological Genomics.

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