Tardigrade Abilities and Why We Can’t Stop Nerding Out Over Them

Around the office, we can get a little nerdy. Our latest obsession is the near-microscopic animal with a plump body, scrunched-up head, eight chubby legs with four to eight claws on each hand, also known as, a tardigrade.

Tardigrades, also referred to as water bears or moss piglets, range from 0.05 millimeters to 1.2 mm long. However, the typical tardigrade doesn’t get much bigger than 1mm (0.04 inches long).

We didn’t just nerd out over these squishy creatures because of their looks, tardigrades can survive and live just about anywhere, deeming them basically indestructible. However, they do prefer to live in sediment at the bottom of lakes, on moist pieces of moss or other wet environments (hence their nicknames).

Researchers have found that tardigrades can withstand environments as cold as minus 328 degrees F and temperature highs reaching more than 300 degrees F. These amazing creatures are also able to survive radiation, boiling liquids, massive amounts of pressure of up to six times the pressure of the deepest part of the ocean, and even the vacuum of space without any protection.

A study in 2008 found that some species of tardigrades could survive 10 days at low Earth orbit while being simultaneously exposed to space vacuum and radiation. So, it should come as no surprise that tardigrades are also thought to be able to survive after humanity is long gone.

Scientists from Harvard and Oxford universities looked at the probability of survival after astronomical events such as asteroids, supernova blasts, and gamma-ray bursts. They found that many of the events would indeed wipe out humans, however, they found that the tardigrade would indeed survive most of these catastrophic events.

“To our surprise, we found that although nearby supernovas or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected,” David Sloan, a co-author of the new study and researcher at Oxford, said in a statement. “Therefore, it seems that life, once it gets going, is hard to wipe out entirely. Huge numbers of species, or even entire genera may become extinct, but life as a whole will go on.”

The tardigrade can survive extreme conditions by transforming into an almost death-like state called cryptobiosis. They curl into a dehydrated ball by retracting their head and legs. If reintroduced to water, the tardigrade can come back to life in just a few short hours.

Other ways that the tardigrade can protect itself is through the production antioxidants in large amounts, proteins designed to protect their DNA from radiation, and even the production of a sugary gel that is able to protect their organs. In cold temperatures, tardigrades are even known to turn into a special dehydrated ball that prevents the growth of ice crystals.

An experiment from 1948 claimed that a tardigrade in cryptobiosis for over 120 years had been revived, however, this research has yet to be duplicated.

The tardigrade species has been known to survive five mass extinctions over the time of around half a billion years. We can only wonder what other huge secrets and abilities these wonderful microscopic creatures are hiding!

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