What would you get if you crossed a human with a tardigrade? Well . . . while the chances are slim to none . . . you’d get a superhuman able to withstand killer asteroids and atomic bombs! Now, that’s the stuff of superhero comic books, right? And yet, tardigrades by themselves sans cross-breeding — can virtually survive on Earth, until the sun stops shining . . . literally! Now, that’s survival of the fittest - do we hear Darwin rolling over in his grave?
Last Animal Standing . . .
It's a little known fact that tardigrades are indeed the toughest animals on the planet. Some of these microscopic invertebrates are able to shrug off temperature ranging from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to approximately 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes.
Also known as water bears, tardigrades are minuscule water-dwelling creatures famed for their resiliency. The eight-legged invertebrates can survive up to 30 years without food or water and can also endure radiation exposure, and even the vacuum of space.
Ironically though, they are super creatures with the tiniest of frames. The largest adults may reach a body length of only 1.5 mm (0.059 in), the smallest below 0.1 mm. Newly hatched tardigrades may be smaller than 0.05 mm.
Tardigrade predated Dinosaurs . . .
The tardigrade lineage is quite ancient. “Tardigrade microfossils are reported from the Early Cambrian to the Early Cretaceous, 520 million to 100 million years ago,” said Ralph O. Schill, an expert on tardigrades at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.
“They have seen the dinosaurs come and go,” added Schill. To put this in perspective, dinosaurs didn’t appear on the planet until 230 million years ago, which makes tardigrades seniors and T. rex and friends, the new kids on the block.
In addition to withstanding extreme cold and heat, tardigrades’ real superpower is ‘cryptobiosis.’ Translated literally, the term means “hidden life,” and that’s exactly what it is: a form of suspended animation in which organisms can sustain life, even as they look and act deceased.
Cryptobiosis is the reason tardigrades can survive pretty much anything. So when times get tough, tardigrades play dead, better than those possums we learned about when we were kids. They hunch up into little dried husks and virtually shut down. This physiological process drops their metabolisms to 0.01 percent of their usual rate. In this deathlike state, the tardigrade becomes nearly untouchable.
Should humans follow in the tardigrade footsteps?
While no one has survived having their bodies cryogenically frozen, those who believe that cryonic revival may someday be possible are currently testing bioengineering, molecular nanotechnology and nanomedicine as the key technologies to make it happen.
So perhaps more research should be focused on the biological make-up of tardigrades, to learn more about their innate animated state of existence. If man could replicate that physiological process, man might be closer to the possibility of living longer . . . or dare might I say . . . forever?