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Proteins Protecting Water Bears From Dehydration May Hold Key To Drought-Tolerant Plants

18 March 2017, 4:46 am EDT By Allan Adamson Tech Times
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Researchers have found how water bears can survive desiccation. Proteins that produce the bioglass protecting water bears from dehydration may lead to the development of crops that can withstand drought.  ( Sean Gallup | Getty Images )

Small as they are, tardigrades also known as water bears, have special ability to survive extreme conditions such as boiling water, freezing temperatures, and even the conditions in space. They can also survive even with their cells being dried out regardless that all living cells are made up mostly of water.

Now, a new study published in the journal Molecular Cell on Thursday, March 16, revealed what could be contributing to the superpowers of these little animals particularly in their capacity to survive dehydration.

Bioglass Protects Tardigrades From Dehydration

By looking at the DNA of the water bears, researchers found that the creatures evolved unique genes that give them the ability to survive drying out. Researchers likewise found that water bears have proteins that produce a special form of glassy substance that holds their important molecules in a suspended state until their bodies are rehydrated again.

Scientists have been interested about how tardigrades survive in extreme conditions and endure being dried up for many years. Researchers, for instance, hope that the genes that protect the aquatic creatures from extreme conditions may help them bioengineer organisms that can survive in hostile environments as on planet Mars, which could be crucial in plans to visit and colonize the Red Planet.

Knowing how the organisms can survive drying out also have important implications on Earth, especially in the field of agriculture and food production.

Protecting Crops Vulnerable To Drought

Study researcher Thomas Boothby, from the University of North Carolina, said that after identifying the proteins called tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins, or TDPs, that are involved in the production of the bioglass that protects the tardigrades, they can now identify other uses for the proteins such as in protecting crops that are vulnerable to drought.

"Our study highlights the diversity and functional role of disordered proteins in mediating stress tolerance," the researchers wrote in their study. "We anticipate that this work will serve as a foundation for pursuing long-term goals of the desiccation tolerance field, including the engineering of drought-resistant crops."

Amid rising temperatures brought by global warming, extreme heat waves and droughts have been blamed on reduction of crops worldwide. Declining harvests of rice, wheat, and maize affect agriculture and food production, which can threaten food security.

Droughts and heatwaves in Europe, Australia, and North America reduced the production of cereal harvests by about 20 percent. Drought likewise led to major price hikes in wheat, rice, and corn.

Experts have already expressed concern over the inability of crops to adapt to a changing climate

"We found that the average impact of drought disasters on crops has gotten worse," said Corey Lesk, from The Earth Institute at Columbia University, who was part of a study that looked at droughts and crop production. "[I]t is still debated whether droughts themselves have gotten more severe, so another explanation could be that crops have gotten more susceptible to drought over the decades. That could mean, speculatively, that we're already on the wrong path with regard to adapting our crops to a changing climate."

As droughts can cause food shortage and economic impact, engineering plants that can survive drought can be crucial as the world faces rising populations and warmer temperatures.

"People want to engineer crop plants to be desiccation tolerant," said Peter Alpert from the University of Massachusetts, who conducts research on plants' ability to tolerate extreme dryness.

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