I first learned of tardigrades in January, 2012 when they were the subject of a Youtube video that I watched. I was instantly drawn to the inexplicably adorable and unbelievably durable little creatures. Having never heard of them before, I was even more surprised when they came up in our Biol 301L Marine Ecology lab. Although I didn’t actually get to see one in that lab, my fascination with them has been re-instated.
Tardigrades are often found sucking water off of moss, and as such have been referred to as “moss piglets”, as well as “water bears” based on their appearance. They have also been referred to as “extremophiles” based on the fact that they can enter into cryptobiosis. This allows them to enter a state of suspended animation when their environment becomes too harsh, and resume life as they know it once the environment is more suitable. Now, many different organisms possess the ability to do something similar. Diapause occurs when an organism delays development based on environmental conditions. What makes tardigrades so unique is that they can enter into this hibernation state in their fully developed form. Also, they can come out of it after experiencing even the absolute harshest of conditions. So far, they’ve been found to successfully recover from temperatures close to absolute zero, as well as almost 300 degrees farenheit. They’ve also been proven to withstand extreme amounts of pressure, far more than any found in nature on planet Earth.
It is because of their extremely adaptable nature that scientists tend to take such an interest in them. In fact in 2007, NASA released some tardigrades into space, recollecting them after ten days and bringing them back to Earth, where they demonstrated no measurable difference in behavior and even went on to successfully reproduce. NASA again sent tardigrades into space for a different experiment as part of the space shuttle Endeavor’s mission in 2011, and the European Space Agency also relased tardigrades into space as part of their Tardigrades in Space (TARDIS) mission.
By studying these fascinating little creatures and figuring out how they do the incredible things that they do, scientists hope to collect information about how life may have originated on Earth, and maybe even discover further information related to the Panspermia hypothesis.
There’s no doubt about it, we can expect a great wealth of information out of these little tardigrades. While they may very well go on to one day answer many of the most complex questions we have about our environment, it’s even more mind-boggling to think that all of this likely started in a lab similar to our Marine Ecology Meiofauna lab, where someone, somewhere first discovered an inexplicably cute, bear-looking tardigrade.
Department of Biology. 2013. Biology 301 Laboratory Manual (Lab 3: Larval Ecology). University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Green, Hank. “Tardigrades: Adorable Extremophiles.” Youtube. 11, January 2012.