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Water Bears May Offer Clues To Human Health And Survival

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Tardigrades' incredible resilience make them seem like otherworldly creatures. They can stand the test of time and survive even the harshest conditions on Earth.

These microscopic aquatic animals can be found just about anywhere.

Ultimate Survivors

Tardigrades or water bears were not regarded as ultimate survivors for nothing. They can live in extreme heat, in the coldest part of the Antarctica, under the sea and, on mountaintops. They can even camp in a parking lot and thrive in the vacuums of outer space. According to scientists, these creatures can stay dormant for a long time and reanimate when needed.

Tardigrades belong to the biological kingdom Animalia. Although they are not visible to the naked eye, tardigrades have an anatomy and physiology that is similar to larger animals — from the brain to anus.

There are two classes of tardigrades — the Eutardigrada that has naked outer cuticle and the Heterotardigrada equipped with armored plate cuticles.

But how did the microscopic tardigrades live throughout Earth's five mass extinction? They have special survival adaptation modes called cryptobiosis. Under stressed conditions, tardigrades curl up and enter into a reversibly suspended metabolic state. During the anhydrobiosis mode of cryptobiosis, tardigrades dehydrate themselves and contracts into a tun.

To further understand how tardigrades are almost indestructible, University of North Carolina biologist Thomas Boothby isolated the genes that activate when tardigrades go into cryptobiosis.

Boothby then engineered the said tardigrade genes into yeast. The result was up to 100 times drought resistance. Tardigrade genes could also help crops better survive drought conditions.

Apparently, when tardigrades are deprived of water, they produce cytosolic-abundant heat soluble proteins. These proteins could help preserve vaccines and blood in blood banks for future use.

"As I was looking into how tardigrades survive desiccation I started to think about how useful these proteins could be for people," says Boothby.

How To Live Long And Prosper Like Tardigrades?

Back in 2007, tardigrades were dried up and brought to orbit by the European Space Agency. They were exposed to the most hostile environments in space where there is a vacuum, extreme radiation, freezing cold temperature, and without oxygen.

"If you were put into that same thing, you would explode," said Randy Miller, a tardigrade expert and biologist at Baker University in Kansas.

Those tardigrade astronauts lived and even multiplied.

"The offspring from those tardigrade astronauts are still alive," Miller said.

The Department of Defense's long-term research arm granted Boothby almost $5 million to further study how tardigrades genes might help human health and pharmaceuticals.

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