They wouldn't win any beauty contests, but naked mole-rats would take home the crown for longevity. And research into human aging might draw from knowledge of the wrinkly subterranean creatures.

No bigger than a stick of butter, mole-rats long outlive similar-sized rodents. They're known to approach age 30.

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Now scientists have gained some insight into this longevity: Mole-rats simply deal with the kind of cellular damage that life normally brings about.

"The naked mole-rat, with its surprisingly long life span and remarkably delayed aging, seems like the perfect model to provide answers about how we age and how to retard the aging process," said Rochelle Buffenstein of the City College of New York. "This animal may one day provide the clues to how we can significantly extend life."

Buffenstein presented her team's research here at a meeting of the American Physiological Society.

Aging Cells:

Humans and other animals are constant victims to oxidative stress. In the body, oxygen splits into single oxygen atoms, known as free radicals due to their unpaired electrons. They scavenge the body to nab or donate an electron, causing damage to cells, proteins and genetic material. Antioxidants produced by the body help to neutralize the free-radical attack.

Since mole-rats live several times longer than other rodents their size, scientists would expect them to exhibit either lower oxidative stress or a greater ability to defend against the attack by free radicals, perhaps by employing more antioxidants.

Buffenstein's team compared two-year-old naked mole-rats to four-month-old mice, selecting ages that were equivalent relative to the animals’ maximum life spans. Turns out the mole-rats had more oxidative damage to biological molecules, including more DNA and protein damage in the kidney and liver. Plus, the mole-rats had lower levels of oxidative neutralizers.

Yet somehow they live on.

Unknown Mechanism:

Buffenstein suspects the mole-rat is able to fend off acute bouts of oxidative stress, and that may be more important than dealing with routine injury caused by daily levels of oxidative stress.

“It’s like saying if something really unexpected came along and instead of having a nervous breakdown, I just fixed it," Buffenstein told LiveScience.

Further research is needed to figure out exactly how the mole-rats live with the damage caused by oxidative stress.

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