Burmese Pythons: Learning Lessons From Extreme Physiology


Animals that exhibit extreme physiological responses can provide insight into normal human physiological processes. These offer a unique opportunity to discover novel treatments for a wide spectrum of diseases. With funding from the Boston Children’s Hospital Awards Committee, we have established a multidisciplinary research program to study the Burmese python model system.

We became interested in Burmese pythons after observing how their physiology is shared with reported changes in rodents after bariatric surgery.

This model can be useful to researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds. It is a fascinating natural model of rapid, massive, controlled, and recurring organ growth. These snakes are infrequent eaters and can remain fasted for a month. During this period, the organs are small and the animals conserve energy. Upon feeding, the organs of the python grow rapidly and massively. This process starts within a few hours after the meal and peaks after 3 days. Even more remarkably, after digestion, the organs return to their normal size. The intestine sheds and reaches its fasting baseline size within 10-15 days post-feeding.

The study of intestinal physiology in the Burmese python complements our work on the mechanisms of action of weight loss surgery (gastric bypass) in rodents. Our work pointed to the intestine as the key organ eliciting the metabolic effects of weight loss surgery. This is because it substantially increases its fuel utilization. We will perform comparative analyses focusing on the study of intestinal metabolism and determine the molecular mechanisms and triggers that increase metabolic activity of the gut. 

Click here to read more about this exciting new project on Vector, and here on the HMS news blog.