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The Tiniest Tough Creatures - Tardigrades

From exposure to outer space, to starvation, tardigrades are known as one of the most resilient organisms that are able to survive in conditions that would quickly kill most living creatures.

Tardigrades are creatures with a plump body around 0.3 to 0.5mm in length. They have eight stubby legs and each of their feet have four to six claws, allowing them to hold onto plants. Despite their soft and squishy looking exterior, they are covered in a cuticle containing chitin and protein which is moulted, like many other insects. Additionally, they have a mouthpart called the bucco pharyngeal apparatus, which is specialised to help them suck nutrients from their food.

Nicknamed “water bears” or “moss piglets”, tardigrades are commonly found in freshwater mosses or lichens, but can be found in many other environments such as the deep sea, stone walls, or sand dunes. Other extreme conditions they can withstand include:

  1. Temperature: Tardigrades can survive a few minutes in near absolute zero (-273ºC) and a few minutes of hot temperatures up to 150ºC.

  2. Pressure: They can endure pressures ranging from the low pressure of a vacuum to pressures six times greater than the deepest ocean trenches.

  3. Radiation: They can withstand a thousand times more radiation than other animals.

  4. Dehydration: They are able to live in dry states for up to 30 years.

  5. Impact: They can take high impacts up to 900 metres per second as well as momentary shocks of 1.14 gigapascals

The extent of the conditions tardigrades are able to survive have led scientists to believe they can even survive mass extinction events like large meteorite impacts or gamma-ray bursts.

These survival skills are thanks to their many adaptations, one being the unique protein “dsup”, short for damage suppressor. This protects the tardigrade from harm such as ionising radiation. Another adaptation is how they can enter a cryptobiosis state. They enter this state when dehydrated where they squeeze out all the water in their bodies and roll up into balls, then become dormant. When water is available, they unfurl, and continue living.

Their unique nature is being studied by scientists, in hopes to develop new technology to improve our world. Some uses scientists have been researching about include preserving biological materials, and creating genetically modified crops that can resist extreme temperatures.

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