Truth behind the ‘indestructible’ tardigrades

3D illustration of a tardigrade. Image credits: Shutterstock
THE SUPER TARDIGRADES

The water bears or the Tardigrades are microscopic animals adept at surviving some of the harshest environmental conditions.

Believe it or not, Tardigrades are found to inhabit mountains of the Himalayas (at 5546m), Japanese hot springs (~100 degree C), at the bottom of the ocean (~1000 bars) and in Antarctica (freezing cold).

Not only this, they can bear huge amount of radiation and can be frozen to absolute zero.

This may sound a bit crazy but they were even blasted into space to test their resilience. The FOTON-M3 spacecraft carried the Tardigrades into low-Earth orbit in 2007. Not only they survived exposure to vacuum and cosmic rays, they thrived. Some of the females were even able to lay eggs in space and the newly-hatched were absolutely healthy.

Now that’s a superpower.

But how do these insignificantly small 1.5mm creatures survive in such extreme conditions? The answer to that might be hidden in their genome. In a recently published study in Nature, Takekazu Kunieda, Professor at the University of Tokyo presented a genetic analysis of the tardigrades.

He says,“Tardigrades have a unique way of coping with stressful conditions. When in stress they can synthesize a protein that can protect its DNA from radiation damage.”

WHAT IS BEHIND THEIR SUPERPOWER?

By elucidating the complete genome of the water bears, the authors were able to pinpoint to a number of genes. For example, its genome contains more copy number of an anti-oxidant enzyme and a DNA-repair gene than any other animal. Authors also found a unique protein, dubbed Dsup, which acts like a barrier against X-ray radiation, preventing the DNA from breaking apart.

This explains its superpowers against the vacuum and cosmic rays.

APPLICATIONS FOR GENETIC ENGINEERING

That’s not all. Imagine this type of super powers in humans. Well, it could be a reality. The researchers incorporated the protein, Dsup in cultured human cells, and it worked. The same protections still applied.

If this protein, Dsup could be transplanted to live humans, it could improve our own tolerance against X-rays. Maybe it could make us more adaptable to space.

Mars, here we come!

Kunieda believes that “Once Dsup can be incorporated into humans, it may improve radio-tolerance.” However, we need genetic manipulations and it can be a thing in near future” he added.

What’s more, he’s confident that water bears use other strategies in addition to Dsup to fend off the effects of radiation.

Truly, the Tardigrades are a force to reckon with. Watch out the video:

 

Source Nature TED-Ed MartinMicroscope

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