Tardigrades are indestructible. Well maybe not totally, but scientists have finally managed to understand what makes Tardigrades so durable.
Now, this may burst your bubble, but Tardigrades won’t be trying to invade the earth anytime soon, if ever, since they are microscopic animals.
Tardigrades are also known as “water bears”, partly because they are extremely skillful in enduring some of the most harsh conditions that can be found in the earth’s environment.
Scientists in Japan have managed to build the most precise picture that is currently available of the tardigrade genome.
That picture has enabled researchers to reveal the clever methods that the tardigrade makes use of in order to stay alive in a vast array of conditions.
Nature Communications published a new research study in which geneticist Takekazu Kunieda and his associates, who all work at the University of Tokyo presently, introduced a genetic analysis of Ramazzottius variornatus.
Of course, no one needs to remember that name. But what everyone should remember is that this genetic sample is now the most resilient and the strongest species that can be found in the whole of the tardigrade family.
The researchers’ results showed that tardigrades had actually evolved a rare, almost singular, repository of weapons and tactics to deal with strenuous conditions.
One of these strategies was the formation of a protein that helped tardigrades DNA from any radiation suffering. In other words, tardigrades DNA evolved to protect itself from any radiation-related harm or injury.
Researchers at the University of Tokyo also transplanted the same protein into cultured human cells. Unsurprisingly, or perhaps surprisingly to some, the protein was able to provide protection to the cultured human cells as well.
This discovery definitely has applications, potential ones that is, in the field of cellular preservation techniques as well as genomic therapies.
Not to mention that this finding could also prove to be useful to the rapidly growing science of transgenics.
It has been known for quite a while that tardigrades are bizarrely attractive microscopic living things they are capable of bearing and resisting some of the toughest conditions that nature can possibly come up with.
In other words, tardigrades can handle anything and everything that the earth’s atmospheric conditions can throw at them.
Tardigrades are categorized as “extremophiles” which means, as the name suggests, that tardigrades are capable of withstanding extreme environmental circumstances such as freezing, absolute dehydration along with extreme radiation and vacuum.
Yes, along with Superman, tardigrades too can survive in space without air or oxygen. But unlike any cartoon character, tardigrades are among the most ancient species of life that exist on earth.
Tardigrades primarily deviated from their ancestral animal species in the pre-Cambrian period.
So how far back is this pre-Cambrian period?
Well, it is about 600 million years back. That’s how old tardigrades are estimated to be. Tardigrades were able to evolve their exclusive genes, which was also only unique to tardigrades, over an extended period of time.
Moreover, prior to this latest discovery, scientists had managed to bring back to life a tardigrade earlier this year.
The rejuvenated tardigrade had actually been in a frozen state, i.e frozen solid, for more than 30 years.
The three decade period was a new record for even the tardigrade species. To put it another way, tardigrades have proven themselves to be the most durable species on the planet.
Understandably, researchers are now becoming more and more interested in tardigrades and for good reason.
Some scientists believe that tardigrades could unlock the key to understanding how these ancient animals survived and evolved over such a long period of time and that knowledge might help humans to perceive more information about how alien life, on other planets, could evolve and survive.
Researchers also believe that tardigrades would be able to help them in figuring out how to take advantage of tardigrade biology and consequently, develop advanced products in the field of medicine and genetics.
Of course, it has to be mentioned that this isn’t the only time that researchers have managed to sequence a tardigrade genome.
Just last year, scientists (or more specifically geneticists) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, carried out a study in a similar area.
That piece of research revealed that the tardigrades indeed had a genuinely peculiar and wild genetic makeup.
Scientists from the University of North Carolina were able to discern that 12.5 percent of the whole tardigrade’s genome came from other living organisms.
These organisms included the likes of plants, bacteria, viruses and fungi. This is also part of the reason why tardigrades are also known as water bears.
To put it another way, tardigrades gathered and seized many of its unique attributes not through the process of evolution but through the hard work of other living organisms.
This process of acquiring characteristics from other organisms rather than one’s own evolution is known as horizontal gene transfer.
With that said, the latest research which was done by scientists at the University of Tokyo disputes this premise. The new research indicated that the vast majority of tardigrade attributes are completely “proprietary”.
Most of all the research from the University of Tokyo says that tardigrades’ resilient DNA is not as a result of the process that is known as horizontal gene transfer.
Needless to say that the new study actually draws quite different conclusions from the older study. And some of these differences are very prominent ones.
For example, the new study had scientists who made use of the most resilient tardigrade species on earth, which is called R. varies ornatus while the old study analyzed another tardigrade species which is known as Hypsibius dujardini.
Hypsibius dujardini is considered to be amongst the least tolerant species of tardigrade that can be found in a freshwater body.
Additionally, the scientist also got rid of all unneeded and nonessential bacterias, by using chlorine based commercial bleaching agents among many other things, which actually enabled them to scan their sample of the tardigrade genome without any impurities.
Why is this the removal of contaminants important in the study?
Well, it might not be as important on its own but when comparing the two studies, the old one and the new, it becomes a significant one because the researchers behind the old, original, study asserted that their study included a great amount of bacterial genes. These bacterial genes, in turn, polluted the tardigrade genome.
Moreover, scientists who worked on the newer study managed to sequence the tardigrade genome which much greater level of precision and accuracy because they created a new genetic profile that was, when compared to the previous study’s genetic profile, a hundred times less fragmented.
Researchers, while studying the new tardigrade sequenced genome, also ascertained that the fraction of foreign genes in the new sample was close to 1.2 percent.
In the older study, the proportion of foreign genes in the tardigrades sequenced genome was around 17.5 percent which was revealed last year.
Kunieda, one of the researchers who worked on the new study, told Gizmodo in an interview that the proportion of the 1.2 percent was not so special in the animal kingdom and thus extensive horizontal gene transfer was also not common in tardigrades, if any.
He also said that the one striking feature of tardigrades was that they had developed and abundantly expressed tardigrade-unique genes and some of those tardigrade genes probably played significant roles in tolerance levels.
The new study also allowed the authors behind it to diagnose a number of genes and biological processes that were considered to be responsible for the tardigrades’ exceptional, if not out-right one-of-a-kind, techniques to sustain life in any type of environment.
Just to take an example, the tardigrade sequenced genome contains, more than any other animal species, remarkable amounts of antioxidant enzyme and a DNA-restoring gene.
Kunieda told reporters that tools such as these aided the tardigrade to neutralize oxidative stress when the organism was extremely dehydrated. It also helped the tardigrade to rehabilitate its DNA that was damaged.
Not only that, but researchers were also able to discover that the tough “water bear” animal actually expressed a unique protein that was only found in tardigrade sequenced genome. This protein can easily manage to bind itself to tardigrade’s DNA.
Researchers have called this one-of-a-kind protein Dsup and have revealed that this protein acted like a protective shield against different radiations (x-ray radiation more specifically) and hence stopped the DNA to break into pieces.
This knowledge has also helped researchers to comprehend why tardigrades were apparently immune to the effects of radiation. It also explains why the tardigrades can remain alive in space as well, where there is no atmosphere, just the vacuum.
Even more remarkable is the fact that tardigrades’ resistance to radiation effects can be passed on to the cells of other living organisms, i.e other animals.
Researchers were able to demonstrate that when tests were conducted on cultured human cells, the Dsup (the tardigrade specific protein) was able to suppress x-ray induced DNA damage by a massive 40 percent in total.
Scientists say that if this tardigrade-only protein can be transferred (transplanted in scientific terms) to survive and thrive in humans then it can potentially enhance the human resistance against X-ray radiations as well.
In fact, some even think that the tardigrade biology might help humans to adapt better to foreign conditions in space.
Kunieda told Gizmodo that once Dsup was incorporated into humans, it might improve radio-tolerance in humans.
He further added that at the moment, scientists needed more genetic manipulations to do that and that he didn’t think that would happen in the near foreseeable future.
Kunieda also clarified that the Dsup protein was not a perfect protein because even though it decreased the damage taken by the DNA because of x-ray radiation by 50 percent, which was significant but still only half.
However, the researcher also thought that the tardigrades probably used more advanced techniques and tactics, in addition to Dsup form of protein, to ward off the ill-effects of x-ray radiation.
Kunieda was of the opinion that Dsup could prove to be a big thing for the science community because it could help researchers discover other “extremotolerant” attributes that were not found yet and could also aid scientists to understand the existing ones better.
He said that by using these tolerant genes collectively, researchers could confer enhanced tolerance to other animals.
The geneticist in Japan also spoke about how, if dehydration-tolerance could become transferable, he hoped that it would transform the way humans preserve various biological materials such as cells, crops, meats, fish and so on.
Of course, it goes without saying that there is still a lot of work left in order to completely understand the extraordinary tardigrade sequenced genome.
With that said, the one thing no one can debate about is the fact that the tardigrade animal (a microscopic one though) is the ultimate warrior in terms of survival techniques.
Can humans learn more unique methods from this amazing creature to endure and maybe blossom in harsher conditions such as those in Antarctica and Africa?
Only time will tell.
What do you think about this amazing microscopic animal tardigrade? Do you think researchers will be able to find something revolutionary by studying the animals sequenced genome? Do you think a day will come when humans will become immune to harsh environmental conditions such as increased radiation, dehydration or extremely hot and cold weather?
Use the comments section below to let us know your thoughts and opinions.
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