Snake oil -- hey, maybe it's good for you!

Yessss, that's right, folks: Snake oil – maybe it’s good for what ails you! The blood of a feeding python is coursing with fats that help the reptile's heart grow big and strong, according to scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In a study just published in the journal Science, a team led by Leslie Leinwand decided to take a look at why the hearts of pythons enlarge so impressively after the snake has had one of its rare and very hearty meals. And we do mean impressively: Within 48 to 72 hours after feeding, the creature’s heart expands its mass by 40%.

Why does it do that? It’s so that the snake, freshly supplied with energy with which to go slithering about, has a heart that can pump enough blood to facilitate all that slithering about.

How does it do it? The scientists detected a 50-fold rise in the level of fatty acids called triglycerides in python blood after the animal was fed, as well as a threefold increase in levels of other types of fatty acids known as non-esterified fatty acids.

When blood from a freshly fed python was added to rat heart cells in a dish, those heart cells grew in size.

When starved pythons received infusions of blood from fresh-fed snakes, the starved snakes’ hearts grew big, as if they’d had a huge meal themselves.

When either starved pythons or mice were injected with just the fatty acid cocktail, their hearts, yet again, grew in size.

All of this is quite fascinating, of course, good news for snakes, and a heck of a lot more fun-sounding than the research I did in grad school. It might also one day be medically useful, the authors say.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways for hearts to grow large – some diseases and congenital heart problems involve abnormally large but poorly functioning hearts.  On the flip side, elite athletes can develop big but well-functioning hearts.

The python hearts grow large in a healthy and functional way,  so perhaps the same chemical cocktail – or related ones – could coax diseased human hearts to beef up in a way that is healthy as well, the authors say.

Check out other items on the Booster Shots blog.

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