Today I’m going to tell you all about one of the darlings of the internet: tardigrades. In fact, you may have seen Neil Degrasse Tyson wax poetic about these animals.
The name “tardigrade” was given to it by an Italian biologist in 1776, which was probably the most important historical event that year. In the 241 years since, it has gotten all kinds of much cuter nicknames: water bears, moss piglets, pygmy rhinos, pygmy armadillos, or my personal favorite, space bears. There are around 1000 species of tardigrades, and there are kinds that live on land, in freshwater, and saltwater. The land ones need water too though, which is why they’re called moss piglets. Moss is nice and wet.
These lil’ guys are tiny, with the largest species reaching about 1.5 millimeters long. For comparison, that’s about three grains of salt lined up next to each other. Most are less than one millimeter.
They probably evolved more than 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian Era when animals were becoming multicellular. They’re technically animals, so we’re technically related, but we’re a lot closer to starfish.
So they’re pretty cool, but why do I love them so much? They have a stomach but no heart, which is my kind of animal. But it’s way more than that; they’re pretty much indestructible. Or at the very least, hard to destruct.
Here’s an incomplete list of things that scientists have done to these poor creatures and what I like to think their reactions were:
- Withstanding six times the pressure of the deepest part of the ocean
- Shrugging off one thousand times the radiation that would kill a person
- Laughing when they’re put in boiling water
- Snapchatting their BFF while being frozen to almost absolute zero
- Napping for THIRTY YEARS without water
- Catching up on Black Mirror in the vacuum of space for ten days
- Did I mention they can stay a dried up shell for thirty years? That’s their most baffling superpower.
Basically, they’re like Wolverine, but the comic version because he’s supposed to be a petite 5’3” even though Hugh Jackman is 6’3”. I’m not bitter.
They don’t have metal bones, because they don’t have any bones, but they do have some pretty cool proteins instead. One of them physically wraps around their DNA to protect it from radiation or heat or freezing. Once the danger is gone, they have four copies of DNA repair genes to fix it back up, where most animals only have one.
The coolest proteins to most researchers (and thus, to me) are their Tardigrade-Specific Intrinsically Disordered Proteins, or TDPs. Most proteins have a set 3D structure, but these TDPs are goopy jello until a tardigrade starts drying up. Then they become a hard glass-like crystal lattice that physically encases the cells, which keeps them from becoming destroyed. One they get plopped back into the water, the proteins become jelly again, and the tardigrade wakes up fully rested within hours.
After this was discovered last year, researchers threw those protein genes into some bacteria and yeast to see if they could transfer the ability to survive being dried, and they did! There are a lot of potential applications here. One currently being looked into is inserting these genes into pharmaceuticals that are hard to ship around the world. Then we can ship vaccines, for example, to remote places without refrigeration.
Humans aren’t that cool in comparison, but one thing we’re pretty good at is taking what’s cool about other animals and making it our own. I hope the next X-Man is a tardigrade.