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Tissues avoid damage from steroids: Arctic ground squirrel


Arctic ground squirrel / David Zaks / LicenseCC-by-nc-sa - Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike

Tissues of Arctic ground squirrels are protected from damage by suppressing androgen receptors except in muscles.

When Arctic ground squirrels are getting ready to hibernate they not only add fat, they also build up muscle. They do it without suffering the harmful effects that high levels of testosterone and other anabolic steroids usually cause.

Arctic ground squirrels increase their anabolic steroid levels and keep them high not just during the spring mating season, but during the summer and fall. These high levels of androgens help both males and females to increase lean body mass (i.e., muscle) by about 25 percent in the months leading up to winter hibernation – mass which is then consumed as they hibernate. To avoid the damaging effects of these high levels, they seem to suppress androgen receptors in all tissues except muscle.
"Lipid, the primary metabolic fuel for most hibernators, provides the needed energy from the catabolism of the fatty acids but provides insufficient glucose (from glycerol)...The problem for AGS [arctic ground squirrel] is how to build the needed muscle tissue prior to hibernation...The key anabolic steroid required for an increase in muscle mass is testosterone (Mooradian, Morley & Korenman 1987). It can be provided from the blood either directly (via testosterone from the testes) or indirectly (via the conversion within the tissue of androgen precursors such as androstenedione which is usually produced by the adrenals, King et al. 1999)...In nature, the benefits of high testosterone levels...come with costs...As a consequence, many seasonally breeding vertebrates limit high testosterone levels to the breeding season." (Boonstra et al. 2011:1349)

"We propose that AGS have solved the problem of hibernating in sub-zero temperatures by ramping up the adrenal production of key androgens. We hypothesize that at the tissue level it must ultimately be T [testosterone], as only T stimulates muscle growth (Mooradian, Morley & Korenman 1987) and muscle protein is required for gluconeogenesis to supplement that coming from the glycerol when lipid is catabolized." (Boonstra et al. 2011:1358)

It is not yet known how the Arctic ground squirrel mitigates the cost of high androgen levels.
About the inspiring organism
Arctic ground squirrel
Spermophilus parryii (Richardson, 1825)
Common name: Arctic ground squirrel

Habitat(s): Artificial - Terrestrial, Forest, Grassland
Learn more at
Some organism data provided by: ITIS: The Integrated Taxonomic Information System
Organism/taxonomy data provided by:
Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist

Threat Categories LONG_LC IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: Prostate cancer treatment to reduce side effects of anabolic steroids.

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Medical

Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, Department of Biological Sciences
Rudy Boonstra
University of Toronto Scarborough
Boonstra R; Bradley AJ; Delehanty B. 2011. Preparing for hibernation in ground squirrels: adrenal androgen production in summer linked to environmental severity in winter. Functional Ecology. 25: 1348–1359.
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