A New Meaning for ‘Food Baby’: How the Burmese Python Digests Big Meals

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Credit: Stephen Secor

Thanksgiving dinner can leave the stomach feeling and looking stuffed beyond capacity. The Burmese python goes beyond the post-meal bulge: Its intestines and other organs grow too, and these changes happen within days of eating. A recent study in Physiological Genomics examined how the organs can grow so much so soon.

The Burmese python takes about 10 days to digest its meal.  Within two days of eating, its metabolism and digestive processes are working 10 to 44 times faster. Three days after eating, its heart, liver, small intestines and other organs have grown to up to double in size. The meal is digested by the 10th day after eating, and these bodily changes have reversed. The Burmese python shrinks and returns back to its pre-meal state to go through this cycle again the next time it eats.

A multi-institutional team of researchers led by Todd Castoe, PhD, of the University of Texas at Arlington tracked how gene expression changed as the Burmese python’s body transformed. A gene is expressed when the protein it codes for is made. Greater expression of a gene means more of its protein is produced and present in the body. The researchers found that the expression of at least 2,000 genes changed after the snake ate. To their surprise, most of the shifts occurred soon after eating—within six hours. Genes that varied included those involved with organ structure and nutrient absorption. Gene expression matched and often preceded physiological changes and, like the bodily changes, returned to pre-eating state by the 10th day after eating.

According to the researchers, this study is the first to link the extreme and rapid eating-induced transformations of the Burmese python’s body directly to changes in gene expression and also the first to show how quickly gene expression changed.

Maggie KuoMaggie Kuo, PhD, is the former Communications and Social Media Coordinator for APS. Catch more of her writing in the Careers Section of Science Magazine.

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