Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?

Submission + - How Does the Tiny Waterbear Survive in Outer Space? ( 1

DevotedSkeptic writes: "The humble tardigrade, also known as a “waterbear” or “moss piglet,” is an aquatic eight-legged animal that typically grows no longer than one millimeter in length. Most tardigrades (there are more than 1,000 identified species) have a fairly humdrum existence, living out their days on a moist piece of moss or in the sediment at the bottom of a lake and feeding on bacteria or plant life.

In 2007, a group of European researchers pushed the resilience of this extraordinary animal even further, exposing a sample of dehydrated tardigrades to the vacuum and solar radiation of outer space for 10 full days. When the specimens were returned to earth and rehydrated, 68 percent of those that were shielded from the radiation survived, and even a handful of those with no radiation protection came back to life and produced viable offspring.

How do the little tardigrades survive such a harsh environment? Although amateur tardigrade enthusiast Mike Shaw recently made waves by postulating that the animals may be equipped to survive in outer space because they originally came from other planets, scientists are certain that the creatures developed their uncommon toughness here on earth.

A tardigrade curls up into a dehydrated tun, allowing it to survive for years without water.
It turns out that the adaptation that allows tardigrades to live through these trying conditions is their ability to enter a dehydrated state that closely resembles death. When encountering environmental stresses, a tardigrade curls up into a dry, lifeless ball called a tun, reducing its metabolic activity to as low as .01 percent of normal levels. In order to do so, tardigrades produce trehalose, a special protective sugar that forms a gel-like medium that suspends and preserves the organelles and membranes that make up the animal’s cells.

The creatures are also capable of other types of transformations that allow them to survive in difficult conditions. If the oxygen content of their water medium drops too low for them to extract enough of the gas for respiration, they stretch out into a long, relaxed state, in which their metabolic rate is also reduced but the relaxation of their muscles allows as much water and oxygen to enter their cells as possible. If the temperature of a tardigrade’s environment falls below freezing, it forms a special cold-resistant tun, with molecules that prevent the formation of large ice crystals that could damage cell membranes.

This remarkably wide range of survival techniques leads to an obvious question: If tardigrades aren’t from outer space, just what barren environment did they actually evolve in? Although the exact placement of tardigrades in the evolutionary tree of life is still debated, scientists believe they are most closely related to arthropods, a phylum of animals with hard protective exoskeletons and that includes insects and crustaceans.

It is likely that the tardigrade evolved to survive intermittently freezes and droughts, and as a result they are able to survive the vacuum of space."

This discussion was created for logged-in users only, but now has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

How Does the Tiny Waterbear Survive in Outer Space?

Comments Filter:
  • There are frogs that can be frozen solid over winter and hop away happily once they thaw in the spring. That is impressive. I wonder how cold these frogs can get to before they are no longer able to revive themselves.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN