When the going gets tough, the tough curl up, dry out, shut down, and wait. At least they do if they are tardigrades—the tiny ultimate survivors deceptively nicknamed “water bears.” Because of their extreme resiliency after extreme conditions, the U.S. military is looking to the tardigrade for lessons in true toughness. In December, the U.S. Defense Department allotted nearly $5 million in grant money for tardigrade research. Can the tardigrades’ self-protective tricks be used to aid humanity as well?
Scientists say the not-quite microscopic creature can stay dormant for decades—and then reanimate with just a little water. Other life forms would rapidly perish when exposed to conditions these slow steppers (the translation of “tardigrades”) take in stride. Extreme temperatures (both Antarctic cold and 300-degree heat), extreme pressures (both high and low), oxygen deprivation, starvation, dehydration, even radiation—tardigrades survive. They’ve been called the closest life gets to indestructible.
So researchers want in on the secrets of the moss piglet (another nickname). They think the tardigrade’s unique biology holds clues to improving crop resistance to drought, preserving blood and medicines, and even making more effective sunscreen.
In 2007, scientists put two species of tardigrades in containers. They launched them into orbit and opened them up to cold, airless space with no protection from the Sun’s punishing radiation.
“If you were put into that same thing, you would explode,” says Randy Miller, a biologist at Baker University in Kansas. They lived and later multiplied though. The offspring from those tardigrade astronauts are still alive, Miller says.
Tardigrades can live almost anywhere they find a bit of moisture—enough to host algae or some modest plant life. The eight-legged, alien-looking invertebrates use their tubular mouths to puncture algae or plant cells and dine. They have no circulatory system. This allows them to curl up into their hyper-survival mode called “cryptobiosis” when necessary. When danger is over, they just need a little more moisture to pop back to life.
University of North Carolina biologist Thomas Boothby isolated the genes that activate when a tardigrade goes into cryptobiosis. He engineered those genes into yeast and saw a 100-fold increase in drought tolerance. Boothby next hopes to extend the shelf-life of human blood products. He envisions soldiers taking their own blood supply in dried form into battle, or equipping ambulances with a larger supply.
What wonders God has hidden in the tiny things of His creation! No wonder He optimistically calls our seemingly small faith and efforts “seeds” with great potential for His kingdom work! (See Matthew 13:23)