Featured in the newest Dialogue Magazine »
Hibernation on Demand

Hibernation on Demand


Hibernation on Demand? Here is a question that has baffled me for quite some time. How could eight people on the ark look after so many animals? Consider this: Noah and his three sons had to look after all these animals for 53 weeks while living in the ark.

Now you could imagine the amount of food and drink required to meet the animals’ metabolic demands to survive for so long. And think about the amount of waste produced during that time! How would they dispose of that enormous quantity of waste? The task would be daunting unless….

Recent studies have shown that animals and humans, can be put into a state of suspended animation without any harmful effects. This type of suspended animation could also be known as hibernation on demand. Hibernation is characterized by marked decreases in metabolic activity, followed by loss of body temperature such that it approaches the temperature of the environment.

Dr. Roth, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has successfully induced a state of hibernation in an animal that normally does not hibernate – in mice. During this hibernation-like state, all cell activity slows to a near standstill. This, in turn, reduces the animal’s need for oxygen. In effect, Dr. Roth has successfully shut down each cell’s hunger for oxygen. In this state, animals will have a very low demand for nutrients and will produce very little waste.

How was Dr. Roth able to achieve this amazing feat? He did so by changing the ratio of atmospheric gases present in the mouse’s environment. He added 80 parts per million (ppm) of hydrogen sulphide - the smelly gas that gives rotten eggs their characteristic odour.

Within minutes of breathing this mixture, the metabolic activity of the mice dropped by 80%. Breathing also slowed from the normal 120 breaths per minute to less than 10 breaths per minute. Lastly the body temperature of these small animals fell from 37 degrees C to 11 degrees C. After a few hours the mice were given fresh air and their metabolism, breathing and body temperature returned to normal levels without any harmful effects.

Now what does this have to do with Noah’s dilemma? Well, the smelly gas that gives rotten eggs their odour, is also the smelly gas that animals release as a byproduct of digestion. Imagine that hydrogen sulphide levels in the ark approached 80 ppm. This might induce a state of suspended animation in the animals. With such a low metabolic rate and low waste production, maintaining the animals becomes a whole lot more manageable for Noah and his family.

Of course it is not possible to know for sure whether this is what happened to the animals. But it is nevertheless thought-provoking when you consider that all animals, including humans, have a latent ability to hibernate on demand given the right conditions. Perhaps the situation the animals faced during that catastrophic moment was the necessary trigger that caused them to enter into suspended animation. And then in time, when new atmospheric conditions were right, these animals could come out of their induced hibernation without any long term effects. Something to think about.

Josh Munan
April 2006

Subscribe to Dialogue