Tardigrades are extremely weird, extremely small creatures — but it looks like they’ve got a lot to teach us.
Tardigrades are eight-legged microscopic creatures that were first discovered about 450 years ago. They are undeniably ancient, having diverged from precursor animal species more than 600 million years ago. That makes them one of the oldest species on Earth. In close-up photos, they look like manufactured animals . . . or perhaps characters in a video game. They’re also called water bears, and some people curiously describe them as “adorable.”
But here’s the most interesting part: tardigrades are the ultimate survivors. In fact, they might be the hardiest species in the world. Recently, scientists successfully revived a tardigrade that had been frozen solid for more than 30 years — that’s since the Reagan Administration, in case you’re counting — and the species also can withstand dehydration and a total vacuum. Of particular interest to scientists, tardigrades also can survive radiation levels that are lethal to most organisms.
Scientists studying one of the toughest tardigrades learned that the little guys have a special protein that provides protection against radiation. Dubbed “damage suppression” or “Dsup” by researchers, the protein envelops tardigrade DNA and protects it from radiation injury while allowing it to maintain all of its normal functions. Even more intriguing, scientists think “Dsup” could be developed in human beings, and provide protection for humans engaged in space travel or that need extreme radiation therapy. It may be that, in the future, humans are thanking our little water bear friends for providing us with a method that allows us to safely explore the far reaches of our solar system and the galaxy beyond.
Well . . . maybe they are kind of cute and cuddly after all.