The University of Alabama

Snakes with Big Hearts May Help Yours, According to UA Co-Authored ‘Science’ Article


Dr. Stephen Secor

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Identification of three fatty acids involved in the extreme growth of Burmese pythons’ hearts following large meals could prove beneficial in treating diseased human hearts, according to research co-authored by a University of Alabama scientist and publishing in the Oct. 28 issue of Science.

Growth of the human heart can be beneficial when resulting from exercise – a type of growth known as physiological cardiac hypertrophy – but damaging when triggered by disease – growth known as pathological hypertrophy. The new research shows a potential avenue by which to make the unhealthy heart growth more like the healthy version.

“We may later be able to turn the tables, in a sense, in the processes involved in pathological hypertrophy by administering a combination of fatty acids that occur in very high concentrations in the blood of digesting pythons,” said Dr. Stephen Secor, associate professor of biological sciences at UA and one of the paper’s co-authors. “This could trigger, perhaps, something more akin to the physiological form of hypertrophy.”

The research, conducted in collaboration with multiple researchers at the University of Colorado working in the lab of Dr. Leslie Leinwand, identified three fatty acids, myristic acid, palmitic acid and palmitoleic acid, for their roles in the snakes’ healthy heart growths following a meal.

Researchers took these fatty acids from feasting pythons and infused them into fasting pythons. Afterward, those fasting pythons underwent heart-rate growths similar to that of the feasting pythons. In a similar fashion, the researchers were able to induce comparable heart-rate growths in rats, indicating that the fatty acids have a similar effect on the mammalian heart.

The paper, whose lead author was Dr. Cecilia Riquelme of the University of Colorado, also showed that the pythons’ heart growth was a result of the individual heart cells growing in size, rather than multiplying in number.

By studying gene expression in the python hearts – which genes are turned on following feasting – the research, Secor said, shows that the changes the pythons’ hearts undergo is more like the positive changes seen in a marathon runner rather than the types of changes seen in a diseased, or genetically altered, heart.

“Cyclists, marathon runners, rowers, swimmers, they tend to have larger hearts,” Secor said. “It’s the heart working harder to move blood through it. The term is ‘volume overload,’ in reference to more blood being pumped to tissues. In response, the heart’s chambers get larger, and more blood is pushed out with every contraction, resulting in increased cardiac performance.”

However, the time-frame of this increased heart performance of a python blows away even the most physically-fit distance runner, Secor said.

“Instead of experiencing elevated cardiac performance for several hours with running, the Burmese python is maintaining heightened cardiac output for five to six days, non-stop, while digesting their large meal.”

Another interesting finding of the research, Secor said, is even with the increased volume of triglycerides circulating in the snakes after feeding, those lipids are not remaining within the snakes’ hearts or vascular systems after the completion of digestion.

“The python hearts are using the circulating lipids to fuel the increase in performance.”

Traditionally, mice have been the preferred animal model used to study the genetic heart disease known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, characterized by heart growth and contractile dysfunction. However, the snakes’ unusual physiological responses render them more insightful models, in some cases, Secor said.

Pythons are infrequent feeders, sometimes eating only once or twice a year in the wild. When they do eat, they undergo extreme physiologic and metabolic changes that include increases in the size of the heart, along with the liver, pancreas, small intestine and kidney. Three days after a feeding, a python’s heart mass can increase as much as 40 percent, before reverting to its pre-meal size once digestion is completed, Secor said.

UA’s department of biological sciences is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.