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.
We all remember Chernobyl — the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster that spewed radiation equivalent to more than 20 Hiroshima bombs in an area of Belarus and the Ukraine — but what has happened in that area since?
The Soviets evacuated almost every human (a few holdouts still remain) and restricted access to an area twice the size of Rhode Island. Then, two interesting things occurred. First, animals that had been eliminated from the area due to Soviet modernization efforts moved back into the ecosystem, and an animal population explosion began. The Chernobyl zone has become one of the largest nature preserves on the European continent, and now is home to lynxes, wolves, moose, otters, boar, owls, and a huge array of other wildlife. The animals live their lives against a backdrop of crumbling Soviet style buildings that are falling apart against the one-two punch of the elements and Mother Nature. It’s like a post-apocalyptic sci fi novel — except it’s real.
The second point is even more interesting: the animal population has been exposed to radiation levels thousands of times greater than what is thought to be safe, but the generations of animals are not exhibiting the kinds of deformities or mutations that scientists expected. In fact, the animals look pretty normal. A Russian photographer named Sergei Gaschak has spent years taking photographs of the animals of the Chernobyl zone, and as the accompanying photo from The Independent reveals, they are beautiful and wild and noble — just like animals of the same species in non-radioactive areas.
What does it all mean for humans? I don’t think anyone is suggesting that people should move back into the Chernobyl Zone just yet, but perhaps the success of the animals means we still have a lot more to learn about radiation and its real effects on living creatures. Humans, and other mammals, may just be a lot hardier than scientists working in their laboratories think.