Scientists have discovered how a tiny aquatic creature survives freezing, boiling and radiation.
New research shows that tardigrades’ reputation for being Earth’s hardiest animal is owed to a highly unusual gene.
Researchers already knew that the little critters roll up to protect themselves in extreme conditions.
But scientists previously thought that they were capable of repairing their DNA following damage.
Instead, University of Tokyo researchers found that the creatures clothe their DNA in a protective protein, the BBC reported.
The study sheds light on how thousands of tardigrades were able to reproduce on Earth after returning from space in 2007.
But the protein might not have been their only source of protection against the sun’s intense radiation.
Scientists at the University of Tokyo have used their findings to grow human cells which produce the same protein.
The cells were far better protected from X-Rays than those which had not been treated.
However, the tardigrade cells were more resistant still. Commenting on this finding, Prof Matthew Cobb from the University of Manchester told the BBC:
“[So] tardigrades have other tricks up their sleeves, which we have yet to identify.”
The scientists unearthed the protein by searching the genome of one tardigrade species for protein attached to the DNA.
Upon making the discovery, scientists named it the Dsup gene, short for damage suppressor.
It could one day be used to protect us from radiation, like X-rays or harmful UV light from the sun, the scientists say.
They believe the cells could even be used to store and transport human cells, during skin grafts for example.
Earlier this year, scientists defrosted two tardigrades which had been frozen for more than 30 years. Not only did they survive; they also went on to reproduce.
The latest study was published in the journal Nature Communications.