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Bears in Space?

“Water Bears” can survive the vacuum of space

Tardigrades, or “Water Bears” are seriously tough animals. So tough that they are the only animals known that can survive:

  • At least 10 years without water
  • Exposure to high doses of gamma and X-ray radiation
  • Temperatures from -272°C to 150°C
  • 10 days in open space
  • Our planets big five extinction events
  • 12 rounds in the ring with Chuck Norris

These hardy creatures are commonplace across the world, however, at 0.5mm they go largely unnoticed. There are around 1,300 different species of tardigrades found worldwide. Their favoured habitats are mosses and lichens but they have been observed living in more challenging habitats from the deep sea to sand dunes.

When exposed to extreme conditions they shrink (further) to a “tun” state and their metabolism more-or-less switches off. In most animals, these harsh conditions would destroy the DNA in their cells, but tardigrades have a damage suppressor that shields their DNA.

Unfortunately, we don’t fully understand how this works yet. But it’s hoped that a better understanding of tardigrades could help stabilise pharmaceuticals, improve the stress tolerance of crops and even improve cancer treatments.

Oh, and there are possibly tardigrades alive on the moon right now.

Not alien tardigrades, fortunately. In April 2019 a lunar lander “Beresheet” crashed on the moon, amongst other things it was carrying a colony of tardigrades in their tun state. Many of them were coated in a protective resin. In the best-case scenario, the lander “would have ejected [the tardigrades] during impact and they now lie in one piece near the crash site”.

It is possible therefore that Bowie might be right, “There’s a starman waiting in the sky”. We hope this blows your mind.

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