In the dark recesses of a tiny cave two hours northwest of Las Vegas, about 100 fish the size of your thumb live a very tough life.
Scientists have studied the Devil’s Hole pupfish for decades, and since 1967 it’s been listed as an endangered species. It doesn't’t help the fish that the thermally warmed waters of Devil’s Hole contain very little oxygen.
Researchers have always wondered how the fish could live there. Now, UNLV researchers have found that unusual pathway.
Associate professor Frank van Breukelen told KNPR's State of Nevada that the pupfish can go hours without using oxygen. A process called "paradoxical anaerobism."
The warm temperatures of the water in Devil's Hole has forced the fish over thousands of years to evolve the technique.
The pupfish once lived in the much cooler waters that covered Death Valley centuries ago and they became trapped in the hole when the waters receded.
Another twist in the already bizarre story is that the pupfish use ethanol to turn on the process, and ethanol is exactly what you think it is - alcohol.
"We think what it does is allow them to continue on with the anaerobic metabolism," van Breukelen said.
But that exposure to alcohol does the same thing to the pupfish as it does to humans. They suffer the same types of medical problems seen in chronic alcoholics, which is why they only live for six to nine months compared with close cousins that live three to four years.
"I think that they're living in the a bad neighborhood," van Breukelen said, "They have the tools to make a basic living but they're not making a great living"
Now, in an even more interesting twist in the evolving pupfish story, van Breuklen said the fish could help in the effort to defeat cancer.
"Cancer cells get a tremendous amount of their metabolism via anaerobic processes," he said. Researchers are not sure how cancers cells do it, but the pupfish could help solve that mystery.
Frank van Breukelen, associated professor, UNLV School of Life Science
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