Of all the weird, tiny organisms out there, tardigrades might just be the cutest.
“Under a microscope, what you would see is this little critter that kind of looks like either an eight-legged Gummi bear, or an eight-legged manatee,” says Thomas Boothby, a molecular biologist at the University of Wyoming.
To top it off, these lovable micro-animals are known colloquially as water bears or moss piglets.
What Is a Tardigrade?
Biologically speaking, tardigrades are super tiny invertebrates that are actually a close relative to arthropods — not bears, or any other mammal, though they do have claws.
That related phylum within the animal kingdom includes lobsters, crabs, spiders and many insects with exoskeletons.
The typical tardigrade, however, measures just 1 millimeter (.04 inches) in size or smaller. And it has adapted to live and thrive in or on just about anything.
Where Do Tardigrades Live?
You can find them on flowering plants, in sand and damp moss, as well as the sea and much more unexpected places, including outer space. That's because, despite their cuddly appearances, tardigrades are tough.
“They can survive just about any sort of environmental stress that you could throw at them,” says Boothby.
That includes withstanding the crushing pressure of the ocean floor, the DNA-shredding powers of radiation, temperatures just one degree above absolute zero (the temperature at which molecular motion ceases), and even the vacuum of space.
What is the Tardigrade's Secret to Survival?
Scientists like Boothby are attempting to get to the bottom of tardigrades’ death-defying hardiness.
Boothby’s lab focuses on how tardigrades can survive the evaporation of all the water in their cells by curling up and suspending their metabolic processes, essentially just hitting the “pause” button on life until they’re reunited with water.
One of the secrets that Boothby and his colleagues have found involves a special, flexible protein in tardigrades that doesn’t break when damaged, perhaps via freezing or drying out.
Replicating The Water Bear's Power
What’s more, when the genes to create this protein are put into another organism like a yeast or bacteria, that organism takes on the tardigrade’s drying-resistant superpowers.
Boothby says that tardigrade cells’ ability to survive desiccation could be the key to stabilizing vaccines and pharmaceuticals so that they can be stored at room temperature, instead of relying on fridges and freezers.
With any luck, tardigrades’ legendary durability will make it a little easier for humans to survive, too.
Read More: 6 Animals With Unusual Evolutionary Traits