Amazing Science Facts Fauna Health

Tardigrade: This tiny strange organism can save millions of lives

Written by Raza Yaseen

Have you ever wondered, soon after the discovery of microscope, from the times of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek till this date, there are many unknown, unseen creatures that have been discovered? A few of them have a strange weird face but possess some supernatural abilities in them. Humans always consider themselves as one of the most superior species due to their ability of thinking and working, for sustaining their lives on this planet. It is true to some extent but we always and have to utilize natural resources for our own survival in contemporary challenges.

Advancement in science and technology helps human in numerous issues, from solving their basic mathematical problem to working and controlling almost everything possibly on their iPads and latest gadgets. It is estimated that near 2050, the life of every human on this planet will be digitalized.

iPads, tablet computers, cellular phones, and laptops etc. are being used by us every day. We are living in a world where we can’t even think about living without these gadgets. Our surroundings are full of harmful radiations and electromagnetic waves due to presence of these things in our daily life. Digitalization could revolutionize our lives in terms of many aspects but this digitalization is also causing a serious havoc in our society silently!

Harmful radiations like X-rays, Gamma Rays, electromagnetic waves, radio waves etc. emitted from these electronic devices are slowly killing us. Even when we don’t use them, signaling towers emit them. Obviously, we don’t get sick in this relatively short time but we may cause diseases like Parkinson disease, Alzheimer, Amnesia etc if we are exposed to them for longer periods of time regularly. Many studies show that these rays may produce different kinds of cancer from skin to eyes, brain to other vital parts of our body. Putting laptop on your laps may cause temporary sterility or weak sperms production. Putting phones in our pocket cause the same effect, even breast cancer. When we call someone, the harmful radiations emit from our phones are absorbed by many parts of brain and eyes. So what will happen to our bodies if we stay exposed to these rays till the next decade? The answer is still unknown and it may be fatal.

Scientists are working to find the sources of these harmful radiations and trying to minimize them but this topic is still debatable and need a lot research. Children can’t survive in high radiations, causing serious health and mental issues. In developed countries, it is enforced by law to minimize the usage of gadgets by children. But condition in our country is much worse, even educated people don’t have any idea about those harmful radiations. People use phones and put them under their pillow, carry them in their pockets all the time or some where near without having any idea that it may cause cancer or mutation in their cells.   Things are getting worse day by day but thanks to mother nature who always provide something in return for the survival of the fittest. Scientist re-discover a microorganism and its hidden special ability to survive in exposure of radiations, high temperatures and other extreme conditions, if we possibly unlock the secrets that how it works then it may be possible that we can develop something of our own interest from this organism called Tardigrade.

What are Tardigrades?

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Tardigrades belong to kingdom Animalia and are microscopic, they have 8 legs and the body is segmented, also known as “Water bear or Space bear”. They were first discovered by Johann August Goeze, a German zoologist in 1773. After 3 years in 1776, an Italian zoologist Lazzaro Spallanzani gave them the name Tardigrada means “Slow stepper”. They are found in almost every place,even where life conditions are harsh such as glaciers, hot springs, mud volcanoes and even in Antarctica.

Tardigrades can bear almost every harsh and fatal situation where other animals don’t survive.  They stand for highest temperature points nearly from absolute zero (-272 °C) to  extreme high temperature (150 °C) for several minutes. Their bodies are also nearly resistant to ionizing radiations. The dose of radiations that could kill humans doesn’t cause any effect on them. Even they are resistant to hundred of times increased the dose of radiation as compared to humans. According to experimental studies, they also have tolerance to outer space vacuum. They can survive even more than 30 days without food and water. They are extremely small usually found on lichens and mosses. Their size ranges from 0.1mm to 1.5mm in length and could be seen with common lab microscope. Their name “Water bear” is derived from their way of locomotion in water, walking like a giant bear on its claws. They are generally phytophagous, some are bacteriophagous and other are cannibalistic to their own species or other tardigrades.

Genomic Studies shows some distinguish features:

Recent studies show the importance of tardigrade genome for many different applications, as mentioned earlier that tardigrades are nearly immune to radiation exposure which are lethal for human, but by studying their genetic sequence, we can make many different varieties of products and help modern human in current challenges.

Radiation blocking proteins:                                                                                                                     

  Studies shows remarkable significance of tardigrade proteins. A team of Japanese scientist in 2016 find that DNA of tardigrade incorporated into the cultured cells of human have an ability to boost the protection of human DNA nearly 40% more than normal range from X-rays. They use the species “Ramazzottius varieornatus” for their research of Tardigrada phylum. It is known as the toughest of all the other species in the genus.

Dehydration Tolerant Ability:                                                                                                      

R. varieornatus is an extremely tolerant species, can even survive desiccation. Their genetic sequence gave them the ability to survive in relative much low humidity as compared to normal cells.

Heat Soluble Proteins:

Studies show that some species also contain heat-soluble protein means they have the ability to tolerate even high temperature. They don’t become denatured and even survive desiccation. They can tolerate high temperature and resist heat in order to protect their bio-molecules from their denaturation.                            

Practical Applications:

Tardigrade genome could be used in many practical applications some of which are as follows:

Cancer Research

Tardigrades metabolic and genetic study is the new hotspot for molecular biologists as they have the ability to tolerate high lethal dose of U.V rays and X-rays. This possibly one day could benefit thousands of people, who undergo  radiotherapy for their cancer treatment. This may introduce a new concept for both molecular biologist and physicians. The radiation tolerant human cells could be increased and people can get better treatment. Handling of radioactive material can also be easier than before, as tardigrade have specific proteins called Dsup (Damage suppressor) which increases the cell’s ability against radioactive waves which could benefit people who suffer from mutations or lethal effects by working at specific radioactive sites. The Dsup– proteins applied to human cultured cells show significance  damage suppression from x-rays to human DNA.                                                                                                                

  1. Plant Breeding: Tardigrades proteins can also be used for the purpose of breeding different cultivars of plants. Molecular biologist and Biochemist could start the research on the effects of proteins on plants and these plants when consumed by humans or animals than what will happened? If there are no toxic effects on human or animal health than these metabolic reactions and proteins could be used in Plant breeding against environmental toxins, heat and drought tolerance.

Dry-Vaccinations

By studying the mechanism of tardigrades and understanding them, we can make dry-vaccines. Countries like Pakistan which are still developing can use these vaccines and store them for a longer period of time. These dry-vaccines show desired response as they introduced into patient. Possibly by this method we can eliminate many serious viral diseases from our planet.

Astrobiology                                                                                     

Animals which are multi-cellular and are extremely tolerant are very rare in nature. But many studies shows that Tardigrade could be utilized as an element for study purpose in the field of Astrobiology. Tardigrade undergoes a process called anhydrobiosis where they nearly stop their cellular activities to tolerate the extreme level of heat and even 4000 Gy (He) ions radiation. Some species can also tolerate UV radiations which make them perfect for this kind of study.

Researchers are now trying to extract DNA from Tardigrade species to incorporate their genes into other species, to produce such animals and plants which may also acquire the capacity to tolerate extreme conditions. In future, animals and plants may be sent to outer space stations or to NASA outer space missions like Project: MARS. This could revolutionize the limits of humans and make us the most advanced species of the universe and who knows this could be the 1st step toward life on new planets.

Scientist are working to evaluate and utilize this organism in practical applications. Previous meetings regarding it were always unattended or degraded or claimed as minor phyla of Kingdom Animalia; normally not taught even at universities. But this tiny little organism has an ability to save millions of lives.

Reference:

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About the author

Raza Yaseen

Mr. Raza Yaseen is currently working as a Biology Lecturer in Punjab Group of Colleges (Boys), Bahawalpur Campus and also as Clinical Study Coordinator in AEIRC (Advance Educational Institute and Research Center)- Karachi.

E.mail: r.yaseen.bio.edu@gmail.com