Water Bears In Space
These magnificent and slightly terrifying creatures are tardigrades—stocky organisms less than 1mm long, also known as “water bears”. They’re found all over the world, from deserts to the Arctic, but they always need water to perform necessary biological processes. However, if their habitats dry up or they’re exposed to physical or chemical extremes, they can enter a state of total metabolic shutdown called anhydrobiosis, and survive in this state for years—then, when conditions are right again, they can just spring back to life. Anhydrobiosis involves processes at molecular and physiological levels, but basically, when cells become stressed through dehydration, ‘bioprotectors’ are formed to protect the cell’s important molecules and minimise cell damage. Tardigrades are nicknamed the hardiest creatures on Earth, and they appear to be just as hardy above it, too. In 2007, an experiment launched them into a 10-day orbit, and proved that they can survive exposure to the sub-zero temperatures, intense radiation, and oxygen-deprived vacuum of space. Now they’re part of Project Biokis, a program sponsored by the Italian Space Agency that aims to study creatures like tardigrades and develop techniques to protect other organisms—humans especially—from the extreme conditions of space.
(Image Credit: 1, 2)