A giant python swallows an alligator in Everglades National Park, Fla.
BOULDER, Colo. — Pythons are known for their enormous appetites. In a single meal they can devour animals at least as big as they are — deer, alligators, pigs, household pets.
Equally remarkable is what happens inside the python as it digests its prey. Within a day, its internal organs can double in size. Metabolic rate and production of insulin and lipids soar.
Then, like an accordion, the python’s organs return to normal size in just a few days. Metabolism slows. Then the snake can fast for months, even a year, without losing muscle mass or showing any ill effects, ready to ambush new prey.
How this process happens so rapidly is a biological mystery with important implications for human health, particularly when it comes to heart failure. Now scientists at the University of Colorado are reporting that they have partly solved it.
In a paper in the current issue of Science, they report that a gorging python expands its heart by enlarging existing cells — a process called hypertrophy — and not by creating new ones. (It is not known whether snakes get heart disease.)
A second finding is that a specific combination of three fatty acids produces enlargement of a python’s heart, intestines, liver and kidneys. Injections of the combination produce similar growth in the heart of a mouse.
Understanding such exaggerated variations, the researchers say, could help them develop novel ways to delay, prevent, treat or even reverse various hereditary and acquired human diseases.
Substances from other reptiles have been used to develop drugs; for example, the diabetes drug Byetta is derived from a hormone found in Gila monster saliva. And the day may come when doctors literally prescribe snake oil for heart disease.
“Heart failure is the goal” of the python research, said Leslie A. Leinwand, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor at the University of Colorado and a senior member of the research team. She added that the findings might also lead to treatments to prevent sudden death in young athletes, as well as ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.