Scientists finally figure out why the water bear is nearly indestructible

Freeze it, boil it, or expose it to radiation. The water bear shrugs it off. Now we know why. 


Water bear rendering.
Medically accurate model of a tardigrade or water bear.

The tardigrade, also known as the moss piglet or water bear, is a bizarre, microscopic creature that looks like something out of a Disney nightmare scene: strange but not particularly threatening. The pudgy, eight-legged, water-borne creature appears to be perpetually puckering. It's the farthest thing from what you'd expect an unstoppable organism to look like.

Yet, water bears can withstand even the vacuum of space, as one experiment showed. A sort of microscopic Rasputin, tardigrades have be frozen, boiled, exposed to extreme doses of radiation, and remarkably still survive. How they do this has been a mystery to science, until now.

Being a water-borne creature, scientists in this experiment examined how it survived desiccation, or being completely dried out. When it senses an oncoming dry period, the critter brings its head and limbs into its exoskeleton, making itself into a tiny ball. It'll stay that way, unmoving, until it's reintroduced into water.

It's this amazing ability that piqued Thomas Boothby's interest. He's a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Boothby told The New York Times, “They can remain like that in a dry state for years, even decades, and when you put them back in water, they revive within hours." After that, “They are running around again, they are eating, they are reproducing like nothing happened."

Originally, it was thought that the water bear employed a sugar called trehalose to shield its cells from damage. Brine shrimp (sea monkeys) and nematode worms use this sugar to protect against desiccation, through a process called anhydrobiosis. Those organisms produce enough of the sugar to make it 20% of their body weight.

Not the water bear. Trehalose only takes up about 2% of its entire system, when it's in stasis. Though employing a sugar to preserve one's body sounds strange, the newly discovered process that the water bear goes through is even more bizarre. It turns itself into glass.

In this study, tardigrades were placed into a drying-out chamber, which mimicked conditions the organisms would encounter in a disappearing pond. As the water bears underwent anhydrobiosis, scientists examined what genes were activated. These genes produced a certain protein, which they named tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs).

When the genes which produce TDPs were blocked, the water bears died. “If you take those genes and put them into organisms like bacteria and yeast, which normally do not have these proteins, they actually become much more desiccation-tolerant," Boothby said.

Water bear under a microscope. Flickr.

It's when the drying out process begins that such genes are activated, flooding the water bear's system with the protective protein. The process occurs in much the same way as trehalose preserves sea monkeys, according to Boothby. This is an example of convergent evolution, when two unrelated organisms develop the same trait for survival.

Usually, proteins are formed in orderly, 3D chains of amino acids. But TDPs operate differently, in a kind of random, somewhat disorganized manner. Dr. Boothby said, “It's a really interesting question about how a protein without a defined three-dimensional structure can actually carry out its function in a cell." Another question, is this protein used by any other organisms?

When desiccation begins and TDP is activated, it engages a process known as vitrification. Boothby said, “The glass is coating the molecules inside of the tardigrade cells, keeping them intact." From there, it goes into a form of stasis until it detects water. When that occurs, the protein is dissolved into the liquid and the tardigrade is revived.

There could be some practical uses to this discovery. For instance in medicine, vaccines often require refrigeration. But in the developing world, it isn't always available, which makes delivering vaccines to vulnerable, rural communities difficult.

Dr. Boothby believes that we may be able to use TDP to sort of freeze-dry vaccines or medications, for easy storage and transport. What about putting humans in stasis for space travel or when they have terminal diseases, to await a cure? No word on that, yet. Scientists have years of research ahead of them already, just to understand the inner-workings of TDP.

Some believe tardigrades may have “alien" DNA. To find out more, click here:

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

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End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
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Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

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