Tardigrade: The Winter Soldier

Earth’s most resilient organism has once again astounded the scientific community. Tardigrades, also referred to as “waterbears”, have successfully demonstrated the ability to survive deep freezing for decades. In November of 1983 a Japanese research team harvested moss while on an anarctic expedition, contained within this harsh environment (as with many other equally harsh areas) were tardigrades who had been thriving in the cold climate where the average temperature hovers at or below the freezing point of water. After being collected, the moss and its microscopic occupants were placed in a storage container held at a balmy -20ºC. And there they sat, for 30 years.

A water bear (Paramacrobiotus craterlaki).

In 2014 scientists finally retrieved the moss and, as it began to thaw, they made a remarkable discovery. Inside the moss were two tardigrades curled tightly into pill shapes, most commonly referred to as their “tun” form. In this form, tardigrades expel up to 95% of the water in their bodies and produce excess proteins and sugars to sustain their cells thus allowing them to survive in unimaginably harsh conditions such as boiling water, immense pressures, and even the vacuum of space. It seems now that tardigrades are also able to carry on in incredibly cold environments; after just a few days one of the specimens began to move, eat, and even effectively reproduce. In addition, a frozen egg found within the moss successfully hatched and went on to reproduce as well. Having such an incredible capacity for survival, tardigrades are the subject of hundreds of research studies striving to understand how these creatures are able to adapt, thrive, and survive under such extreme conditions. For the research team in this study the next goal is to determine the exact mechanism through which the tardigrade enters its “cryptobiosis” and perhaps one day apply those survival secrets to the advancement of other species or the discovery of life on another planet.

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