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Secrets of the world’s toughest creatures revealed

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Exploring the mysteries of the world’s hardiest creatures, tardigrades, commonly known as water bears, reveals fascinating insights into their extraordinary resilience. Despite their diminutive size, measuring no more than a millimeter, these remarkable beings demonstrate an unparalleled ability to withstand harsh conditions, including cosmic disasters, radiation, freezing temperatures, extreme dehydration, and even the vacuum of space. A groundbreaking genetic study, recently published in the journal PLOS Biology, has unveiled some of the secrets behind their remarkable survival skills.

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The research, which focused on the DNA of two tardigrade species, has provided valuable insights into the genes responsible for their ability to revive after undergoing desiccation, a process of extreme dehydration. Tardigrades are commonly found in environments prone to drying out, such as moss and ponds. Over time, they have evolved a unique ability to endure extreme dehydration and subsequently revive when exposed to water. The study reveals that specific genes in tardigrades are activated in dry conditions, triggering the production of proteins that replace the missing water in their cells. Upon rehydration, these proteins dissolve, replenishing the cells and allowing the tardigrades to spring back to life.

The implications of understanding this inherent survival mechanism extend far beyond the realm of tardigrades. Professor Mark Blaxter from the University of Edinburgh, a co-author of the study, highlights the potential benefits for humans, envisioning applications such as the transportation of live vaccines worldwide without the need for refrigeration. “Tardigrades, with their amazing abilities, can offer us new ways of dealing with real-world problems like transporting vaccines,” notes Professor Blaxter.

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Moreover, the study addresses a longstanding controversy regarding the evolutionary lineage of tardigrades. Despite their appearance, which may suggest a closer relation to insects and spiders, genetic analyses have revealed surprising findings. The researchers decoded the HOX genes, which play a crucial role in controlling head and tail development, as well as limb positioning in the embryo. While most animals possess ten HOX genes, tardigrades were found to have only five, a trait shared with certain roundworms. This unexpected discovery challenges previous assumptions and suggests a closer evolutionary relationship between tardigrades and worms than with insects.

Furthermore, the genetic exploration uncovered a set of proteins that protect tardigrade DNA, potentially explaining their ability to withstand radiation. “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,” concludes Professor Blaxter. The revelations from this study not only deepen our appreciation for the resilience of tardigrades but also pave the way for new avenues of scientific exploration and potential applications in addressing challenges faced by humans.

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