When the authorities ask me how I broke into the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, I’ll be able to say in all honesty that I had a "mole" on the inside. But not just any mole, it's the eastern mole, whose superpowered blood allows it to burrow furiously in the inhospitable world of the underground. And if I can manage to get that mole blood inside my villainous veins, I'll be able to tunnel, too – all the way to the bank.
To backtrack: When I started thinking about tunneling my way into Fort Knox to find funding for my costly world-domination schemes, I kept wondering: How am I going to breathe underground?
And then it hit me: Moles can breathe in their tunnels, so why couldn't I learn from them?
They spend their lives digging in small, enclosed spaces, using up oxygen and filling up their caves with carbon dioxide. This low oxygen, high carbon dioxide combination is basically a death sentence for any animal that enjoys aerobic respiration, including me. So how did they get so good at breathing down there?
Luckily, a group of researchers led by Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba has already begun to unravel this riddle for me. The team decoded the hemoglobin gene from the eastern mole, expecting to find that its hemoglobin would be better at binding to oxygen than the hemoglobin of, say, mad scientists.
This kind of adaptation is the norm for animals that live without much oxygen; in environments where oxygen isn't readily available, animals evolve to be better at transporting it in their blood.
But the eastern mole harbored a surprise in its red blood cells: Its hemoglobin binds even less readily to oxygen than does human hemoglobin, and it has an increased affinity for carbon dioxide, in flagrant opposition to the status quo for subterranean animals. Campbell's group theorizes that this helps the eastern mole when it performs bursts of strenuous tunneling, by wicking away the carbon dioxide produced by its anaerobic activity.
Likewise, I theorize that this could help my body to function when I perform bursts of strenuous larceny. It's hard work, carrying bulging bags of bullion through a tunnel hundreds of feet beneath a well-guarded military base. Hard work that might soon become a little easier, thanks to Campbell's team.
So watch out, Fort Knox. Once I get my hands on a few pints of mole blood, and once Dr. Bacteria gives me back my digging machine, I'll be heading straight for your vaults with the unstoppable stamina of an eastern mole.
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Mad scientist Eric Schaffer has one index finger on the "fire death ray!" button and his other index finger on the exciting pulse of scientific research. His accounts of diabolical machinations, as well as research breakthroughs, appear regularly on LiveScience.