A color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a water bear, which is probably the only creature on Earth that looks like a cannon wearing wrinkled khakis. Image: Eye of Science/Science Source

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a tardigrade
Image: Eye of Science/Science Source

Oh, to be as tough as a tardigrade!

These microscopic guys seem to be the most durable creature on Earth. They are also known by the cuter name of water bear (magnified looking like little bears albeit with extra legs). Microscopically cute, but hard to kill.

You can boil, freeze, irradiate it, toss it into the vacuum of space, and dry them out. They come back.

They are not “extremophiles” because though they can survive these things, they don’t seek them our as living conditions. They’re not like some bacteria that just love being in boiling water.

Tardigrades form the phylum Tardigrada, an ancient group, with fossils dating from 530 million years ago, in the Cambrian period.

Of course, they interest scientists because they use cryptobiosis to bring their metabolic processes nearly to a halt.

This means that if they are dehydrated all the way down to 3 percent of their normal water content (dessicated), you can just add water and they come back to life. In fact, these invertebrates can be dried out for at least a decade and still revivify.

I’m thinking micro versions of Rip van Winkle and Woody Allen’s Sleeper and all the other tales of suspended animation, cryogenics and famous people being frozen away for the future,

You can freeze these water bears down to 1 degree kelvin (-458 degrees Fahrenheit) where even atoms almost stop moving, and they come back. Scientists have subject the little guys to six times the pressure of the deepest oceans, hundreds of times the radiation that would kill a human, and 300 degrees Fahrenheit hot water, and they come out still ticking.

In what exotic places do they live?

Turns out to be just plain old dirt, sand and moss all over the world.

Can we learn something about ourselves surviving and dealing under drastic conditions?   That is yet to be seen, but the tardigrades are willing to try.

 

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