P ushed to name the hardiest creature on Earth, many would point to our nuclear-holocaust-loving friend: the cockroach. But in reality it is a microscopic creature you’ve likely never heard of, the water bear, and scientists have finally uncovered the secret to its great resilience.
Water bears, or tardigrades, are water-dwelling, eight-legged micro-animals, so-named because of their meandering, bearish walk. They are extremophiles, surviving in extremely high and low temperatures. They are also able to endure blasts of radiation that would prove fatal to humans and survive the vacuum of space - the only known creature able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and return unaltered.
New research has now emerged showing that water bears have a novel way of preserving themselves through droughts, using a unique protein known as tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs). When wet, TDPs are a jelly-like substance, but in drought conditions water bears curl up into a ball in a process known as cryptobiosis, and the TDPs form a glassy enclave, cocooning the water bear from harm.
Margaret D. Lowman, of the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability in California, told TWW that water bears can stay in this state for extremely long periods of time and have been successfully revived from centuries-old plant proteins.
“Scientists discovered how they can go into ‘suspended animation’ during drought,” Dr. Lowman said. “They produce unique proteins, allowing their cells to turn glassy, until the addition of water brings them back to life.“
The latest findings could also have a positive impact for humans. For example, in many regions around the world a lack of refrigeration makes it hard to stock vaccines. But this latest discovery raises hopes that TDPs can be harnessed in order to remedy this long-standing problem.