A University of Minnesota Duluth biologist is working to unlock the secret to "nature's fat-burning machine" in his research on hibernation.
Each winter, the 13-lined ground squirrel curls up in a little ball to hibernate for periods of one to two weeks. When the rodent awakes, stored brown fat, or brown adipose tissue, provides energy.
The difference between brown fat and white fat (the other fat found in mammals' bodies)?
Brown fat "burns like crazy," Minnesota Public Radio reports.
"We know of no other example in the natural world where fat can be melted away that quickly," UMD biologist Matt Andrews, who has been studying the squirrels for years, told MPR.
MedicalNewsToday says the main function of brown fat is to generate heat, which is why higher levels of brown fat are found in hibernating animals and newborn babies.
Brown fat is also present in adult humans, but works differently than in hibernating squirrels, where certain fat genes are turned on when the rodent is awake.
"We have these genes. It's just that the hibernator, in its brown adipose tissue, can selectively turn them on, turn them off, which allows them to efficiently burn fat, and that's something through evolution we've lost the ability to do," Andrews told MPR.
Since almost every gene sequence found in the squirrel's brown fat is also found in the human genome, the research could someday lead to drugs that would help burn fat in humans.
However, as MPR notes, the gopher diet pill is a long way away.
In 2011, Andrews talked with the hosts of TPT's Almanac about the other potential human benefits could come from his research on hibernation study.