The United States military is investing in research that looks at tiny “water bears” called tardigrades, which are about the size of a period and resemble a mix of a one-eyed alien and a chubby bear, as per Phys.org. Despite their small size, they can survive extreme cold, heat, radiation, and even a lack of oxygen. Scientists believe that they hold clues that can help humans in many ways, including understanding how to preserve blood and medicine, make crops more resistant to drought, and create more effective sunscreen.
Previous studies reveal that tardigrades can remain dormant and reanimate decades later. Back in 2007, a team of scientists put two tardigrade species in containers, shot them into space, and opened the containers, exposing them to the airless space and the radiation released from stars and the sun. But they were still able to survive and even create offspring, which are alive to this day.
“If you were put into that same thing, you would explode,” said tardigrade expert Randy Miller, a biologist at Baker University in Kansas.
University of North Carolina biologist Thomas Boothby, who received the $5 million grant from the U.S. Defense Department to see what tardigrade genes can do for human health, examined the genes that activate when tardigrades go dormant. As NOVA Next reports, Boothby says that the team is currently seeing how tardigrade proteins can be used to help pharmaceuticals, which could help in the maintenance of vaccine supplies in military zones and developing areas of the world.
In particular, the team is trying to find out what tricks tardigrades use to keep themselves alive when they dry and potentially use them to protect human blood and vaccines. Boothby wants to eventually make bags of blood last longer than six weeks, which is the current lifetime, and store them in a dried state. If he and his team achieve this, ambulances could carry more blood and soldiers could take a blood supply with them to battle.
“You see these animals do these weird things and produce these materials that no other organism has. As I was looking into how tardigrades survive desiccation I started to think about how useful these proteins could be for people… And that’s what we should do, as good citizens of the world: help people.”
Some scientists, including Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, believe that tardigrades could exist on planets outside of the Milky way by surviving rock impacts on other planets.
“It’s good to know that at least one creature on Earth has a chance of surviving no matter what.”