The Rigors of Space Travel

Tardigrades could teach us how to handle the rigors of space travel


By Maggie On Jul 13, 2022

Tardigrades could teach us how to handle the rigors of space travel: There is no animal on Earth that is more resilient than the tardigrade. It is able to withstand temperatures as low as -272 degrees Celsius, the extreme vacuum of deep space, and even a dose of X-rays that is five hundred times more than what would be lethal to a human.

To put it another way, the species is able to withstand conditions that do not even occur naturally on Earth. Because of their unearthly hardiness and adorable appearance, animal enthusiasts consider tardigrades to be among their most beloved creatures. However, beyond that, researchers are looking to the minuscule critters, which are roughly the size of a dust mite, to discover how to better prepare humans and crops for the rigors of space travel.

The indestructibility of the tardigrade is a result of the adaptations it has made to its environment. This may come as a surprise given that it lives in locations that appear to be very comfortable, such as the cold and moist clumps of moss that dot a garden wall. Some people call tardigrades water bears or, more endearingly, moss piglets due to their chubby look and the fact that they live in environments similar to those of bears.

It has been discovered, however, that the wet and mossy environment in which tardigrades live can become dry on multiple occasions annually. The majority of living things will perish if they are allowed to dry out. It causes harm to cells in a manner that is comparable to that caused by low temperatures, vacuums, and radiation.

One consequence of drying is an increase in the concentration of peroxides and other forms of reactive oxygen species. In the same way that radiation does, these harmful chemicals chop apart the DNA of a cell into smaller and smaller pieces. The wrinkling and cracking of cell membranes are another effects of drying. Additionally, it can cause fragile proteins to unfold, rendering them as useless as a paper airplane that has been crumpled. Tardigrades have developed specialized defense mechanisms that allow them to mitigate the effects of this kind of harm.

As a tardigrade loses moisture, the cells in its body secrete an assortment of peculiar proteins that cannot be compared to those of any other animal. Proteins lose their structure and become floppy when they are in the water. However, as the water evaporates, the proteins begin to self-assemble into long threads that cross over one another and fill the inside of the cell. These fibers provide support to the cell’s membranes and proteins, preventing the membranes and proteins from tearing or unfolding. They are similar to the packing peanuts made of Styrofoam.

At least two different species of tardigrades are responsible for the production of a second protein that cannot be found in any other animal on Earth. This protein, which attaches to DNA and is known as Dsup, which is an abbreviation for “damage suppressor,” may operate as a physical shield for DNA against reactive forms of oxygen.


How To Find Tardigrades Course

It’s possible that humans will one day be able to conquer space by modeling themselves after tardigrades. It may be possible to genetically design food crops, yeast, and insects to manufacture proteins found in tardigrades. This would allow creatures like tardigrades to thrive more effectively on spacecraft, where the levels of radiation are higher than they are on Earth.

In the laboratory, researchers have already been successful in inserting the gene for the Dup protein into human cells. Many of those transformed cells were able to survive exposure to X-rays or peroxide chemicals at amounts that would have killed regular cells (SN: 11/9/19, p. 13). When the gene for Dsup was introduced into tobacco plants, which are used as an experimental model for food crops, it appeared to protect the plants from the effects of ethyl methanesulfonate, which is a chemical that can damage DNA. Plants that lacked the additional gene failed to reach their full potential as compared to those that included it. When exposed to UV radiation, plants containing Dsup had significantly less damage to their DNA.

The “packing peanut” proteins that tardigrades produce show early hints that they may be protective for humans. According to research published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology on March 18, human cells became resistant to the chemotherapy drug camptothecin when they were changed to make such proteins. Camptothecin is a cell-killing agent. The proteins of tardigrades were able to accomplish this by suppressing apoptosis, which is a pathway for cellular self-destruction that is frequently activated when cells are exposed to damaging substances or radiation.

Therefore, if humans are ever able to reach the heavens, it is possible that they will be able to do it in part by resting their weight on the backs of the small eight-legged endurance specialists that live in your garden.

Re-posted from

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