5 of the craziest experiments where tardigrades have survived for science

Color scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a water bear or tardigrade.

Color scanning electron micrograph or SEM of a tardigrade.STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

  • Tardigrades are hardy microscopic creatures known for their ability to withstand extreme conditions.

  • Water bears can live for years without food and water and can withstand extreme radiation and temperatures.

  • From launching into space to gunfire, they’ve served science in explosive ways.

Tiny, oddly cute creatures called tardigrades are one of the hardiest organisms on earth.

Tardigrades, perhaps better known as water bears because of their plump bodies, belong to an extremely hardy group of microorganisms that can thrive in harsh environments unsuitable for life. To survive, they squeeze water out of their bodies and become dehydrated balls known as tuns.

In this form, tardigrades can withstand the harshest environments, even the vacuum of space. As a tun, these microscopic creatures can live for years without food or water and withstand extreme radiation and temperatures.

This durable nature makes them excellent subjects in experiments with the tenacity of life. These are the five key times when tardigrades have proven their mettle in the name of science, from being hit by a gun to crash landing on the moon.

SEM Micrograph of a water bear

SEM of the water bear.Cultura RM Special/Gregory S. Paulson

1. Aquatic tardigrades became subjects traveling in space

Scientists hope to find out what makes these tiny creatures nearly indestructible. They are really small – they range in size from 100 to 1,000 microns, as small as a sheet of paper.

In 2021, NASA sent 5,000 tardigrades into space on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. “We want to see what ‘tricks’ they use to survive when they arrive in space, and what tricks their offspring use over time,” Thomas Boothby, the experiment’s principal investigator, said in a NASA statement. Said.

In 2007, a European research team sent 3,000 tardigrades into Earth’s orbit outside of a spacecraft for 12 days. When water bears returned to Earth, scientists discovered that 68% of them survived.

“Our principle finding is that the vacuum of space containing extreme thirst and cosmic radiation is not a problem for water bears,” project leader of the European experiment, Ingemar Jönsson, said in a statement. Said.

2. Tardigrades crash landed on the moon

In April 2019, an Israeli lunar probe crashed into the moon while carrying thousands of dehydrated tardigrades on board.

Many speculated that the water bears may have survived the crash. “We believe the chances of the tardigrades surviving are extremely high,” Nova Spivack, co-founder of the organization that sent the tardigrades into space, told BBC News.

According to Wired, any tardigrade found in the future will need to be brought back to Earth for rehydration on a planet with an atmosphere.

SEM image of a tardigrade taken on November 16, 2012.

SEM image of a tardigrade taken on November 16, 2012.Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012)

3. A thawed tardigrade survived freezing for 3 years

In 2016, scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Polar Studies examined tardigrades from a frozen algae sample collected in Antarctica in 1983.

After rehydrating them, the researchers successfully reanimated a tardigrade that had been frozen for more than 30 years. What’s more, the researchers found that water bears were able to breed successfully after decades in cold conditions.

Based on lab experiments, tardigrades survive even at -458 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more than twice the coldest temperature ever observed on Earth’s surface, according to NASA.

4. Creatures withstood the scorching temperatures

Tardigrades can survive extremely hot temperatures, and you can find them in Earth’s harshest environments such as deep-sea vents, hot springs and mud volcanoes.

Still, in a 2020 study, researchers found that prolonged exposure to high temperatures, even in hibernation, can kill tardigrades in just one day. In the study, half of the tardigrades in the research sample died after exposure to water temperatures of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We had found his Achilles heel,” Ricardo Neves, the study’s principal investigator, told Newsweek.


Microscopic image of a water bear.Philippe Garcelon

5. Tardigrades survived being hit by a high-speed weapon

Some scientists believe that tardigrades could spread life to different planets.

In a 2021 study, researchers loaded a nylon bullet with hibernating tardigrades and fired them at a sand target at various velocities. The creatures survived hitting targets at speeds up to about 2,000 mph, but those hit at higher speeds disintegrated on impact.

They wanted to test whether a tardigrade could survive a cosmic impact such as a meteorite that fell to Earth, as this would give confidence to the idea that life could hitchhike through the cosmos.

“If they could, and they were the hardest thing we know, right? Maybe it could do other things,” said Mark Burchell, the experiment’s supervisor, in a press release. “[B]but if they can’t, and it’s the hardest thing we know, then maybe nothing else can either.”

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