Amazing Tardigrades

Some species can survive temperatures as low as -457.6 degrees Fahrenheit (just above absolute zero) and as high as 303.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are microscopic invertebrates that are found in almost every corner of the world. They are renowned for their remarkable ability to withstand extreme conditions that would be lethal to most other forms of life, including exposure to radiation, extreme temperatures, desiccation, and even the vacuum of space.

Tardigrades have a cylindrical body that is divided into four segments, each of which has a pair of legs with claws at the end for gripping surfaces. They are typically 0.1 to 1.5 millimeters in length and have a mouth located at the anterior end of their body. They are found in many different habitats, including freshwater, marine environments, and moist terrestrial habitats such as mosses and lichens. One of the most remarkable features of tardigrades is their ability to enter a state of suspended animation known as cryptobiosis[1], which allows them to survive in extremely harsh environments.

During cryptobiosis, tardigrades lose almost all of their water and become almost completely dehydrated. In this state, they are able to survive for years without water, oxygen, or food. When conditions become favorable again, tardigrades can rehydrate and resume their normal metabolic activities.

Tardigrades have also been shown to be able to survive extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. Some species can survive temperatures as low as -457.6 degrees Fahrenheit (just above absolute zero) and as high as 303.8 degrees Fahrenheit. They are also able to survive exposure to high levels of radiation and can withstand pressures that are thousands of times greater than atmospheric pressure.

The ability of tardigrades to survive in such extreme conditions has attracted the attention of scientists who are interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that allow these organisms to withstand such stress. Studies have identified several genes and proteins that are involved in protecting tardigrades from environmental stress, including proteins that stabilize their cellular membranes and protect their DNA from damage.

In addition to their scientific importance, tardigrades have captured the public imagination due to their unusual appearance and remarkable abilities. They have been the subject of numerous documentaries, popular science books, and even video games.

Tardigrade Facts

The actual word ‘tardigrade’ means ‘slow-paced’. It was originally an adjective applied to tortoises, but since 1800 it has been the name of these microscopic creatures.

Tardigrades eat bacteria, plants, or even other tardigrades. They pierce individual cells of their prey and suck out the contents for nutrients.

Tardigrades can also survive immense pressures, up to six times that on the ocean floor, or even being boiled in alcohol.

They can be carried in the wind, like a seed or spore. If it lands in a habitable environment, it can asexually reproduce and start a new colony.

In 2007, dehydrated tardigrades were taken up into orbit and exposed to the vacuum and radiation of space for 10 days. On return to Earth, over two-thirds of them were successfully revived. Many died relatively soon after but were still able to reproduce beforehand. Of course, this does not mean tardigrades are aliens.

Inside the cells of dehydrated tardigrades, a type of protein called ‘tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered protein’ (TDP) replaces the water. This forms a glass-like substance that keeps the cell structures intact. Yeast and bacteria can be protected from dehydration by encoding in them the tardigrade genes for producing TDPs. This method could be used to produce crops that can survive droughts or medication that doesn’t need refrigeration.

The hind pair of a tardigrade’s eight legs are attached backward and are used for grasping objects.

In April 2019, the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet[2] crashed onto the Moon’s surface, thus bringing its mission to an abrupt end. But part of its cargo (alongside classic books, human blood samples, and the entirety of Wikipedia) contained a colony of tardigrades, who scientists believe are extremely likely to have survived the impact.

Yet another example of tardigrades’ ability to survive in extreme environments was discovered by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in October 2020. The team found that a new species of tardigrade they were studying, Paramacrobiotus sp., is capable of protecting itself from a potentially lethal blast of UV radiation by forming a protective glowing shield. They simply absorb the harmful UV radiation and then emit it as harmless blue light.

  1. Cryptobiosis is a state of suspended animation that enables certain organisms to survive extreme environmental conditions, such as desiccation, freezing, or exposure to radiation. During cryptobiosis, the metabolism of the organism slows down to a near halt, and all vital functions cease, allowing the organism to remain dormant for prolonged periods until conditions become favorable again for it to resume normal activities. Several groups of organisms, including tardigrades, nematodes, rotifers, and some types of bacteria, are known to be capable of cryptobiosis, and recent research has shed light on some of the molecular processes involved. Understanding the mechanisms of cryptobiosis has practical applications in fields such as biotechnology, agriculture, and medicine, such as developing new methods for preserving cells, tissues, and organs for transplantation, by inducing a state of suspended animation similar to cryptobiosis. [Back]
  2. Beresheet was a privately-funded Israeli spacecraft developed by the nonprofit organization SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with the aim of landing on the Moon. The spacecraft was launched on February 21, 2019, and although it successfully entered lunar orbit, it experienced technical difficulties during its landing attempt on April 11, 2019, and crashed onto the lunar surface. Despite the mission’s failure to land on the Moon, it was widely celebrated for being the first privately-funded spacecraft to attempt a lunar landing. [Back]

Further Reading

  • Guidetti, R., Altiero, T., Rebecchi, L., & Cesari, M. (2011). Tardigrade resistance to space effects: first results of experiments on the LIFE-TARSE mission on FOTON-M3 (September 2007). Astrobiology, 11(7), 651-659.
  • Jönsson, K. I., Rabbow, E., Schill, R. O., Harms-Ringdahl, M., & Rettberg, P. (2008). Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit. Current Biology, 18(17), R729-R731.
  • Boothby, T. C., Tenlen, J. R., Smith, F. W., Wang, J. R., Patanella, K. A., Osborne Nishimura, E., … & Goldstein, B. (2015). Evidence for extensive horizontal gene transfer from the draft genome of a tardigrade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(52), 15976-15981.
  • Nelson, D. R. (2002). Current status of the tardigrada: evolution and ecology. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 42(3), 652-659.
  • Erkut et al., 2011; Jönsson et al., 2008; Horikawa et al., 2012; Boothby et al., 2015; Boothby et al., 2021
  • BBC Science Focus
  • Space

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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