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Kansas City researchers say being a couch potato may affect evolution. Just ask these fish

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Three fish, one silver, one ruby red, and one gold, displayed against a purple background.
Stowers Institute
Morphological differences between surface fish (top left) with cavefish from the Tinaja and Pachón caves in central Mexico (middle, bottom right).

A study conducted by the Stowers Institute for Medical Research examined the genetic adaptations in Mexican river fish that were trapped underground over 160,000 years ago. The changes in the fishes’ muscle metabolism could help shed light on the long-term effects of physical inactivity in humans.

A Stowers Institute study that examined the genetic reprogramming experienced by fish living in underground caves could point to potential new research insights for studying the long-term effects of physical inactivity in humans.

“We have to look a little bit more out in nature,” said associate investigator Dr. Nicolas Rohner. “Looking a little bit outside of the box may provide us with new ideas of how we can target some of our classical diseases and issues.”

Rohner led the study alongside predoctoral researcher Luke Olsen at a Stowers Institute research facility in Kansas City.

The study involved the observation of different types of a single species of fish, one which lived in rivers above ground and one that was washed into underground cave systems thousands of years ago.

The two fish presented vastly different movement patterns due to having adapted to different environments. Olsen says those differences are what originally inspired the study.

“I saw these surface fish making these rapid bursts of movement, whereas these cavefish are just sitting there all day,” Olsen said. “I'm thinking they're the same species, and yet there’s this dramatic change in movement. How does this affect muscle?”

Surprisingly, despite having more fat and less muscle, cavefish were found to be just as healthy and even able to swim as fast as their surface counterparts.

The sedentary lifestyle of the cavefish and its ability to remain healthy is contradictory to humans, who often experience health issues, such as diabetes or heart disease as a result of prolonged physical inactivity.

Rohner says this contradiction may help us to understand new ways to better treat these conditions in the future.

“[The fish] don't have inflammation, they live long healthy lives,” he said. “They are completely healthy as far as we can tell, and so that's why we're interested in studying how they can do this.”

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