Marisa Morby marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: Water bears in space!

Hi there! Today we're gonna talk about tardigrades, also known as water bears. Water bears are some of the strongest little creatures out there. They can survive in extreme heat or cold and they even survive in space! They belong to a group of microorganisms known as extremophiles, because of their ability to handle such harsh conditions.

Learning more about the water bears

Science has a lot to learn from these little water bears. In order to survive, they need to maintain a thin layer of water around their body. The fact that they have survived in space for 12 days so far raises a lot of questions around adaptability. Why would their bodies be adaptable to outer space? And what can we learn about how their bodies work that allows them to survive in these environments?

What tardigrades can teach us

This second question, learning more about how their bodies work, is exactly what some scientists are focused on right now. So far, we know that in order to survive in boiling water, or on the moon, or wherever a tardigrade may travel, they need to be in a "tun" state. This is a state of suspended animation that slows their entire body down. And there's something in this process that allows them to withstand extreme environments. And some scientists are thinking about how we can apply this to humans as well. Is there a way for us to inject the same cells that put tardigrades into a tun state into human organs, and make them last longer before being transplanted? Others are also looking into how these cells could help stop organ damage from strokes or heart attacks, or even help protect those working in nuclear power plants. (I heard you wondering how I was going to connect with this climate change and there you go.) They're also trying to see if we can isolate what gene's help tardigrades protect themselves so we can protect vaccines and human blood. There's also some work going on to see if they can apply this to sunscreens to make it offer better protection, because they recently found that some tardigrades can absorb UV radiation and emit blue light! They're not sure if this is a new species of tardigrade or an ability they've just never seen before.

Scientists are both baffled and excited by the mystery and potential of water bears, and I'm excited to see what we learn from them.

Wasn't that fun? Here have a little drawing of a water bear in space that I drew.

A pink cartoon water bear with a astronaut helmet, floating through space.

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