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Tardigrades: the Most Extreme Organism on Earth

Author: Harry Yoon

Editors: Eric Lin & Jaylen Peng

Artist: Kyra Wang

There is an animal here on earth that can survive the scorching heat of deserts and the frigid temperatures of the Antarctic ice caps, and they are no bigger than a black ant. Although they are microscopic in size, their toughness is no laughing matter. They share unique animal characteristics, allowing them to survive the most extreme conditions on earth. Tardigrades are small, eight-legged creatures that prey on even smaller organisms and help environments thrive. They predate even the dinosaurs and are known to be present in almost every environment here on Earth. Taking a look at some of their ingenious tricks may help us gain a better understanding of survival in extreme environments.

One of the most unique traits they possess is found inside their bodies. It is a protein called Dsup (short for damage suppressor), and Tardigrades are the only known species in the whole animal kingdom to have this. When we are exposed to radiation, the harmful rays attack our DNA and affect our proliferation ability. That is, our cells' ability to reproduce frequently and in large amounts. This can be linked to cancer, which attacks the genes that control the cell’s ability to proliferate. The Dsup proteins found in Tardigrades are effective at protecting the DNA from harmful radiation, making them able to withstand hundreds of times more radiation than humans. Scientists are researching why this is the case, but this alone is significant information. From surviving the harsh radiation of space to the potential breakthrough in cancer research, the possibilities of Dsup provide a positive outlook for humanity.

Another trait the Tardigrades have is their ability to enter a state called "cryptobiosis." All forms of metabolism are stopped in this state, and the tardigrade enters a state of sleep or death. It shrinks to a third of its size and goes into a state of inactivity. This is what allows it to survive harsh conditions for such long periods of time. One of the states of cryptobiosis is known as "anhydrobiosis," in this state, they can even survive without any water. In cryptobiosis, the Tardigrades are indistinguishable from death. They aren’t moving, metabolizing, or even consuming. But their most amazing ability is that they can “awake” from this state once the conditions are right. They emerge anew and continue with whatever they were doing nine years ago. This unexplainable ability leaves all scientists astonished in their wake, and it may be years until we fully understand what happens in this state. This is another desirable trait for humans that could possibly slow down the way we age and extend our average lifespan.

Although they may seem insignificant to the naked eye, the Tardigrades show some of Earth's most unique and fantastical abilities. From their superhuman ability to withstand massive amounts of radiation to their capability to resurrect from the dead, these small animals display traits that humans can significantly benefit from. Sometimes, it is the smallest of things that make the largest impact on our world.



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