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A list of the world’s most impressive animals would likely consist of those famed for their strength, like the gorilla or the grizzly bear; those with the ability to live in extreme temperatures, such as the camel or the penguin; and maybe even – given the current global political situation – those that could withstand nuclear radiation, like the cockroach or the Braconidae wasp. Imagine then a creature that fits into all of the above categories, and can survive being boiled, frozen, and dehydrated, as well as radiation and even the vacuum of space. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are one of nature’s most remarkable creatures, and finally the secrets to their unrivaled survival abilities are being revealed.

A recent study published in the journal PLOS Biology establishes that genetics is the key to the tardigrade’s survival. The tiny creature – fully grown at 0.5mm – has genes which allow it to change its body to survive difficult conditions. For example, in extremely dry conditions, tardigrades will produce proteins to replace the missing water in their cells. This allows them to last without water for years. The scientists also discovered a different set of proteins which can protect tardigrade DNA, possibly explaining how the creatures can survive radiation.

Biomedical Sciences and Medicine applicants should consider how the incredible survival ability of tardigrades could have benefits for humans, such as allowing live vaccines to be transported around the world and stored without refrigeration. Biology students might wish to look further into the genetic make-up of the tardigrade, including its similarities to insects, arachnids, and worms; which of these is it most closely related to? Earth Sciences and Geography applicants could undertake research into the wide range of habitats in which tardigrades live, from mountain peaks to the depths of the ocean, humid rainforests to the icy tundra.

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