If you haven’t heard of a water bear yet, you may have a good reason. They haven’t exactly been covered by the press to an extensive level that you’d be considered weird if you hadn’t heard the news, while they’re such an oddball of a creature that you’d probably think they were fake if you ever saw one what with their pudginess, weird sucky thing on their face, and eight legs. Nonetheless, these water bears (officially known as tardigrades) deserve a prominent spot in your head since they’re basically supreme to us in every way.
For one, they can survive the most extreme conditions. They’re microscopic, so that helps with maneuvering the world, but they can survive things like no oxygen, no food or water for ten years, solar winds, the vacuum of space – nearly anything tragic you’d think would kill you, tardigrades can live through.
Back in 2016, cryobiologists from Japan even successfully revived one. This tardigrade was frozen in moss for over 30 years over in Antartica and survived thanks to what’s called cryptobiosis (basically a hibernation state that slows down the tardigrade’s metabolism to less than 0.01% of its usual heart rate and drains it from all bodily liquids in order to curl up into a “tun” state to preserve cells and their overall structure). It had successfully been brought back to life alongside a second tardigrade which, unfortunately, didn’t make it as long as the cryobiologists were hoping for. Luckily, the living one reproduced, which led to its offspring having many a child as well.
But how do tardigrades survive such harsh conditions? According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications back in 2016, these creatures actually lose little bits of their DNA that would normally cause the water bear’s cells to begin consuming their own components and eventually produce damaging hydrogen peroxide-packed molecules in response to different environments that would normally cause harm. So basically, tardigrades kind of have the ultimate immune system whereas once they experience something, they won’t experience it again.
In exchange for the losses of cells, tardigrades will be granted protective genes that will withstand hits from harsh environments and protect its DNA. The way they’re obtained is through a process known as horizontal gene transfer which essentially takes genes from other creatures and brings them over to the tardigrade to take advantage of to create a Frankenstine of environmental protection. In fact, this process is so extensively used to reconstruct a water bear from extreme conditions that 17.5% of the creature’s genes are all of foreign origin. And to get a feel for how protective these new genes are, scientists injected a newly-developed protective protein that normally safeguards a tardigrade’s DNA into a human’s kidney. Afterward, the kidney’s cells were able to withstand blasts of X-ray radiation and hydrogen peroxide significantly better than they could before.
All of this leads up to today’s news regarding another study published in Nature Communications. According to astrophysicists at Oxford and Harvard University, tardigrades will no doubt outlive humans. Why? Because water bears can basically adapt to anything like we previously discussed.
To come to such a conclusion, the scientists found that no space phenomena could drain the earth of all water so the tardigrades could survive with what’s left. If a gamma ray decides to visit us and wipe out our ozone layer and atmosphere, the creatures can make it through this thanks to their various protective genes and other scientific reasons. A meteor is highly unlikely to strike earth that would wipe us all out even though the possibility is on the table. Heck, the entire planet could just blow up one day, but that doesn’t matter since tardigrades can survive in space if they happen to float away.
All in all, these water-bound prehistoric creatures that have likely even seen dinosaurs are basically indestructible. Traces of them have been found as old as 520 million to 100 million years. And at this rate, they don’t look like they’ll be wiped out soon. In fact, scientists now say they’ll live another 10 billion years when humans are gone and the Sun is abolished. The tardigrade takeover is coming, and we can’t prepare because we’ll all be dead and gone before it actually gets here.