Scientists have made a remarkable finding about the tardigrade, one of the toughest creatures known to man.
Scientists have long been fascinated by the bizarre tardigrade, or water bear, and it’s ability to survive even the most grueling conditions. And now they think they have a better understanding of a remarkable method the water bear uses to endure things that would kill just about any other creature on the planet.
Water bears are tiny, too small for us to sea with the naked eye, but they can handle being boiled, frozen for years, and even the vacuum of space. They can survive their cells completely drying out, which would kill anything else since cells are mostly water. And scientists think they’ve figured out how.
A team of scientists have just published a paper in the journal Molecular Cell that claims that water bears have special genes that encode for disordered proteins, a complex process that allows them to survive totally drying out. This mechanism protects the cells from desiccation, scientists found. As the tardigrade dries out, the cells are filled with proteins and they turn into a glassy substance, trapping the molecules to prevent them from breaking.
“The big takeaway from our study is that tardigrades have evolved unique genes that allow them to survive drying out,” says Thomas Boothby, the Life Sciences Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the study’s first author. “In addition, the proteins that these genes encode can be used to protect other biological material–like bacteria, yeast, and certain enzymes–from desiccation.”
The finding could lead to breakthroughs in other areas.
“Being able to stabilize sensitive pharmaceuticals in a dry state is very important to me personally,” he says. “I grew up in Africa, where lack of refrigeration in remote areas is a huge problem. These real-world applications are one of the things that led me to study tardigrades.”