BBC Earth (Asia) - - Update -

As some of na­ture’s tough­est crit­ters, de­spite mea­sur­ing less than 0.5mm long when fully grown, tardi­grades can sur­vive de­hy­dra­tion, ex­treme temperatures, the vac­uum of outer space and doses of ra­di­a­tion hun­dreds of times stronger than that re­quired to kill a hu­man. Now, a team from the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh has sequenced the genomes of two species of tardigrade in an at­tempt to un­der­stand ex­actly how they are ca­pa­ble of such feats.

By ex­plor­ing the an­i­mals’ DNA, the team iden­ti­fied the genes that en­able tardi­grades to re­sist the ef­fects of de­hy­dra­tion. Th­ese genes ac­ti­vate as the an­i­mals dry out, trig­ger­ing the pro­duc­tion of pro­teins that re­place the wa­ter in their cells and pre­serve the mi­cro­scopic struc­ture. Other pro­teins an­a­lysed ap­pear to pro­tect the tardi­grades’ DNA from dam­age, and may ex­plain why they can sur­vive such high lev­els of ra­di­a­tion. The re­searchers were also able to pin­point the an­i­mals’ ex­act po­si­tion in the tree of life. It turns out that they sit be­tween arthro­pods, such as in­sects and spi­ders, and ne­ma­todes, a type of round­worm.

The re­searchers hope that fur­ther study of the genome will en­able them to de­velop medicines and ther­a­pies for use on hu­mans.

“I have been fas­ci­nated by th­ese tiny, en­dear­ing an­i­mals for two decades. It is won­der­ful to fi­nally have their true genomes, and to be­gin to un­der­stand them,” said re­search lead Mark Blax­ter. “This is just the start: with the DNA blue­print we can now find out how tardi­grades re­sist ex­tremes, and per­haps use their spe­cial pro­teins in biotech­nol­ogy and med­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.”

DNA se­quenc­ing should shed new light on a tardigrade’s amaz­ing pow­ers of en­durance

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