The creepily cute microscopic critter known as a tardigrade, or ‘water bear,’ can perform a pretty cool trick: Resurrection from the dead.
The intrepid little animal, which measures a mere few hundred micrometers in length, can withstand boiling temperatures, being frozen, high pressures, extreme radiation bombardment, years-long starvation, and, even more incredibly, complete desiccation (state of extreme dryness).
“They can remain like that in a dry state for years, even decades, and when you put them back in water, they revive within hours,” says postdoctoral researcher Thomas Boothby from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a report by The New York Times. “They are running around again, they are eating, they are reproducing like nothing happened.”
In a recent paper published in the journal Molecular Cell, co-author Boothby and his colleagues explain that desiccated tardigrades are able to evade the Grim Reaper due to a special group of proteins, called ‘tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins’ (TDPs).
The team identified the proteins by observing which genes were activated during the desiccation process. When the researchers interfered with the genes responsible for creating TDPs, the water bears perished.
When a tardigrade starts to dry out, TDPs are activated and envelop it in a glassy structure, which coats the molecules inside of the tardigrade cells, “keeping them intact,” says Boothby in the Times report.
Boothby and his colleagues believe TDPs could have important real-world applications. He told Ars Technica that his team is considering splicing TDP genes onto plant species to see if they can prevent the effects of drought on agricultural crops.
“It would be awesome, and obviously a huge economic boon, if we could generate crops that could undergo drought,” said Boothby, “but instead of dying would just go into a dry state of suspended animation, and then spring back to life once the drought is over.”