Tardigrades: Extremophiles Make Their Mark at the Buck

Julie Mangada, PhDWhat if I told you that there was a life form that can endure temperatures ranging from 303º down to -328º Fahrenheit? A creature that can endure one-thousand times more radiation than humans can and survive for over 120 years in a state of suspended animation? A critter that is invisible to the naked eye, yet lives almost everywhere? Meet the tardigrade, an extremophile (an organism that thrives in extreme conditions) poised to provide valuable insights into aging while also becoming a celebrity in our Learning Center.

Tardigrades, more commonly known as water bears, feature a snout, two eyes, and eight legs with claws. Looking like a cross between a bear and a caterpillar, these microscopic animals are masters at dealing with stress. In 2007, NASA shot them into space for 10 days with no protection. They survived. In contrast, humans exposed to the elements of space would have suffered irreparable damage to their DNA almost instantaneously. 

Tardigrades endure extreme hardship by invoking a survival response mechanism called the tun state. During this state, a water bear sheds up to 99% of the water from its body and suspends all metabolic function to appear lifeless.

The tardigrades are ideal candidates for research. They have a simplistic physiology, a quick reproductive cycle, and a small yet compacted genome. Dr. Ted Peters, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Hughes lab, has been working closely with Buck colleagues to sequence the tardigrade genome. The research could provide insights into how cells could survive DNA damage, translating to treatments for degenerative diseases such as cancer. “We believe that identifying the pathways that regulate tun formation will give us insight into the stress-resistant pathways of many multicellular organisms, including humans,” said Peters, who recently worked with summer scholar Marissa Caldwell to develop a method to stimulate tardigrade tun formation.

In the meantime, water bears have become a star attraction in our Learning Center where they always on display on a big video screen, thanks to K-12 education coordinator Dr. Julie Mangada who is spreading the word about these tiny organisms throughout the community. She leads outdoor “wild water bear hunts” for children, and teaches them scientific methodology in the process. After a group of retirees visited the Buck, she went to their recreation center to help the retirees set up a monitor and microscope of their own to share the bears with their families and friends.

“Highlighting the water bears makes research at the Buck more accessible to the public and encourages them to feel a sense of ownership and connection with our work,” said Mangada. “Besides, the water bears are really cute – couple that with a great science story and you’re bound to have a winner.”

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