Why NASA Sent Tardigrades to the International Space Station
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Tardigrades Are Now in Space! I Repeat, Tardigrades Are Now in Space

Tardigrades are seen floating in outer space

The SpaceX resupply of the International Space Station on June 3rd carried some very special guests: thousands of tardigrades. The near-microscopic, strangely adorable, and wildly resilient creatures that resemble swimming bears are now hanging out on the ISS. NASA is hoping tardigrades will be able to teach us a thing or two about surviving in extreme conditions.

I first saw the news on one of my favorite Twitter accounts, @tardigradopedia, a great source for all things about the wee beings. Tardigrades fascinate many, and have a considerable fan base beyond the reach of most micro-animals, for a few reasons. First and foremost there’s that “water bear” element (they are also known as “moss piglets,” which might be an even cuter name). The water bear name came from German Zoologist
Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773, who called them “kleiner Wasserbär,” or “little water bear.”

We can’t help viewing tardigrades and seeing their resemblance to much larger animals, while at the same time they are distinct and already live in an “alien” world—far away under a microscope. Then once you start reading about tardigrades, the fascination ramps up, because these guys are resilient. Hugely resilient.

Found everywhere on Earth, from rainforests to the Antarctic,  “individual species [are] able to survive extreme conditions—such as exposure to extreme temperatures, extreme pressures (both high and low), air deprivation, radiation, dehydration, and starvation—that would quickly kill most other known forms of life,” Wikipedia tells us. Water bears have been exposed to space before. But this time, they’re part of a specific study at the ISS that NASA hopes could lead to helping humans adapt to extreme conditions as well.

NASA has released more information about the tardigrades’ extraterrestrial adventure and what they’re hoping to discover.

Water bears take on space

Tardigrades, known as water bears due to their appearance under a microscope and common habitat in water, are tiny creatures that tolerate environments more extreme than most life forms can. That makes them a model organism for studying biological survival under extreme conditions on Earth and in space. In addition, researchers have sequenced the genome of the tardigrade Hypsibius exemplaris and developed methods for measuring how different environmental conditions affect tardigrade gene expression. Cell Science-04 characterizes the molecular biology of short-term and multigenerational survival of water bears, identifying the genes involved in adaptation and survival in high stress environments.

The results could advance understanding of the stress factors affecting humans in space and support development of countermeasures. “Spaceflight can be a really challenging environment for organisms, including humans, who have evolved to the conditions on Earth,” says principal investigator Thomas Boothby. “One of the things we are really keen to do is understand how tardigrades are surviving and reproducing in these environments and whether we can learn anything about the tricks that they are using and adapt them to safeguard astronauts.”

Those astronauts already hovering around in space are excited to greet the tardigrades.

They sure were ferried there in style.

Seems like Star Trek: Discovery was indeed forecasting the future when they included a giant tardigrade-like being encountered in their own space explorations.

Michael Burnham stands before a monitor showing a giant tardigrade on Star Trek: Discovery

I can’t wait to see what NASA discovers about our watery friends. In the meantime, I will keep enjoying all of the prime tardigrade content that Twitter has to offer. Here is a very small recent sampling, courtesy of Tardigradopedia:

We can even have tardigrade pride for Pride Month, as a treat.

(via Tardigradopedia on Twitter, images: screengrab from antarctica.gov.au, CBS All Access)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.