The Question

How Burmese Pythons Regenerate Their Organs (And You Can Too!)

Burmese pythons are among the largest snakes in the world — by the way, if you've got herpetophobia, it only gets worse from here — and they've managed to spread around the globe thanks to the exotic pet industry. But scientists aren't fascinated by their tendency to become an invasive species almost everywhere they go, or their habit of consuming cow-sized animals whole. No, it's the fact that a python will often let its heart, liver, and small intestine atrophy during a months-long fast, then, like one of the X-Men, suddenly regenerate all their internal organs when the need arises. With the help of a gene-sequencing supercomputer, researchers at Texas Advanced Computing Center got an idea of how the giant snakes pull it off. They think that one day, humans will be able to do it too.

With Great Power Comes Great Hiss-ponsibility

If you were to make a list of all the creepy things you can think of about snakes, we're willing to bet that the ability to rejuvenate their desiccated organs again and again wouldn't be on that list. But maybe it should. Burmese pythons need to do it because their eating schedule is so unpredictable—after a python gorges itself on a dinner of pork a la still alive, it might be as long as a year before its next meal. In the meantime, basically its entire digestive tract just lies around doing nothing. Those organs atrophy, taking up less of the snake's energy to maintain and allowing the fast to go on for even longer. But when the python hits the jungle buffet again, it needs all those organs in working order. Within two days of feeding, its major organs have swollen to 140–200 percent of their previous sizes.

The mechanism responsible for this astonishing regeneration has long been poorly understood. But this new, computer-enhanced study has been able to pinpoint 1,700 genes that changed significantly after feeding. From there, the researchers were able to identify which genes specifically drove the dramatic growth. But as study head Todd Castoe told Vice, the team was more concerned with the implications than with the specific problem of snake regeneration. "We don't really care, ultimately, about how python biology works," he said. "We care about how biology works." Watch out Todd—that kind of thinking leads to the gene-splicing experiments of a cackling mad scientist. Next thing you know, we'll be injecting other animals with snake juice to see what happens.

We Injected Mice With Snake Juice And You Won't Believe What Happened

What, you thought we were kidding? This experiment was actually carried out a couple of years ago. By 2011, scientists had thoroughly documented the python's ability to regenerate after a meal, but they didn't understand it that well back then. They did, however, still want to monkey around with it. As it turns out, if you make a serum from the plasma of a post-feeding snake and inject it into a mouse, the mouse's heart will increase in size. There's still a lot of work to be done to perfect the procedure, but it could be one of the most effective ways to strengthen a heart that's been weakened by cardiovascular disease. With a little more tweaking, it could even lead to an outbreak of reptile-themed supervillains, so that's a win-win. We call dibs on the alter-ego "Spitting Cobra."

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Pythons

How To Handle A 100-Pound Python

Swallowing 100 Pounds Whole

Pythons Eat Alligators

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 1, 2017

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