Fish Holds Breath for Months

Gills before and after exposure to anoxic conditions. (Image credit: G. Nilsson)

If you thought you were the champion of holding your breath under water as a kid, think again. Crucian carp, a fish closely related to the goldfish, can live months without oxygen, scientists have discovered.

These freshwater fish, generally inhabitants of the lakes and rivers of Europe and Asia, are able to change the structure of their gills to boost oxygen uptake, allowing them to survive when they are for all practical purposes starved of oxygen. 

Additionally, their red blood cell hemoglobin, which transports oxygen, can bind oxygen to itself more strongly than in any other vertebrate.

Understanding the mechanism of how animals cope with oxygen starvation, called anoxia, could aid scientists solve similar problems in humans.

"Anoxia related diseases are the major causes of death in the industrialized world," said Goran Nilsson, a professor at University of Oslo. "Evolution has solved the problem of anoxic survival millions of years ago, something that medical science has struggled with for decades with limited success."

The results of this study will be presented at the Annual Meeting for the Society for Experimental Biology today.

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.