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Tardigrades: Nature's Toughest Creatures

Houston, TX
Translucent tardigrade

Out of all of nature’s creatures, only one can resist the most extreme conditions in the universe, from the vacuum of space to the surface of the sun. You may believe that a particular species with such godlike qualities is unheard of, but it exists everywhere, even your hair follicles. A near-microscopic animal, 0.002 to 0.05 inches long, with an adorable plump body and a flattened head similar to a caterpillar, the tardigrade is nearly indestructible.

Tardigrades, or water bears, were discovered by German zoologist Johann August in 1773. The name tardigrade comes from the Italian term, tardigrada, or slow walker, due to tardigrades’ slow walking speed, which is unusual for invertebrates of its size. The tardigrades have five body sections, including a head and four body segments with claws, which vary between different species of tardigrades, from bearlike paws to hooks. More unique features of the tardigrade include its hindmost legs used for grasping rather than for walking. To allow for efficient nutrition and gas exchange in such a small body, the tardigrade has a body cavity that touches every cell, eliminating the need for circulatory and respiratory systems. Oxygen enters their bodies through their cuticle walls, and muscle contractions transport nutrients through the cavity and into their skeleton. Thus, it is more resilient than organisms that depend on organs.

Tardigrades exist anywhere there is water, from the ocean, terrestrial mosses, and animals’ skin and hair. They can also survive in altitudes from over 19,600 feet in the Himalayan mountains to 15,000 feet below the surface in ocean depths. Their primary mechanism for surviving harsh conditions is transforming into a tun, a dehydrated ball. While as a tun, tardigrades can survive with no oxygen and water for up to 10 years and withstand temperatures from negative 328 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. In a 2008 study published by K. Ingemar Jönssen, a researcher on anhydrobiotic animals, tardigrades can survive a 10-day trip into low-Earth orbit and return to Earth unharmed by space. More recently, in May of 2021, a group of researchers at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom tested tardigrades’ resistance to high-speed impacts and found that they can survive a crushing impact of 1.14 gigapascals of pressure, ten times the amount a human can survive.

Drug and syringe

New insights into tardigrades’ fortitude can lead to human advancements as well. Because tardigrades can preserve themselves in freezing temperatures, Dr. Maria Kamilari, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary ecology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, suggests that we can use the specific proteins in tardigrades that tardigrades use to endure cold conditions to protect enzymes contained in drugs or molecules in vaccines from desiccation or freezing without refrigerated storage. Furthermore, with enough development and research, such proteins can be applied to crops to help them survive drought conditions. Thus, not only is the tardigrade one of the most unique creatures in nature, but its capabilities open the doors to more benefits to human society.


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