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The heart of the Burmese python, a 15-meter long Asian snake, swells to three times its size after a big meal. The bizarre phenomenon is associated with a mixture of fatty acids circulating in its blood, and could have applications for heart disease treatments in humans, according to a study published Thursday (October 27) in Science.
The python often goes months without eating, then binges, sometimes devouring a whole deer, ScienceNOW reports. To handle this mega-meal, the snake’s metabolism kicks into overdrive and many of its internal organs, including the small intestines and the heart, swell.
To determine how this swelling occurred, researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, raised dozens of the pythons in their lab and observed changes in their blood chemistry. They found a milky substance composed of fatty acids right after the snakes had a meal. When they injected fasting snakes with the milky fluid, the snake hearts grew.
How the milky fluid causes organ swelling is unclear, but it could have implications for the treatment of heart disease. Having more powerful heart tissue could improve circulation, and the substance could help beef up the hearts of humans with cardiac disease to do just that. The next step is to see whether a similar effect occurs in other species, like mice.