Tardigrades - The Invincible Microscopic Creatures and their Lunar Adventure

· 4 min read
Tardigrades - The Invincible Microscopic Creatures and their Lunar Adventure
Electron Microscope Image of a Tardigrade / Diane Nelson, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior

In the realm of survival, tardigrades, or "Water Bears," are true anomalies. These seemingly indestructible microscopic creatures can thrive in extreme conditions, outlasting almost all other forms of life. But did you know that these hardy invertebrates might also be moon-dwellers?

When the Israeli Beresheet spacecraft met an untimely end on the lunar surface in 2019, it inadvertently opened a new chapter in the survival saga of tardigrades, casting them into an environment more hostile than ever before. This riveting journey into the world of tardigrades will not only unveil their remarkable survival strategies on Earth but also explore the implications and controversies of their unplanned lunar expedition.

What is a Tardigrade?

Have you ever stumbled upon a creature that looks like a cross between a bear and a pig but is small enough to sit on your fingertip? Welcome to the universe of tardigrades. These invertebrates are tiny, usually ranging in body length from 0.05mm to 1.2mm. The fascinating aspects of their anatomy include a bilaterally symmetrical, segmented body and eight limbs, each tipped with four to eight claws, bringing to mind a bear's paw at a minute scale.

Tardigrades are further characterized by plump and segmented bodies with flattened heads. They possess an armor-like cuticle that they shed to facilitate growth. Their specialized mouthpart, known as the buccopharyngeal apparatus, aids them in extracting nutrients from their diet.

With a diet primarily comprising plant cells, animal cells, and bacteria, some species of tardigrades are also known to be carnivorous. As for reproduction, these organisms can reproduce both sexually and asexually, with their eggs hatching within a span of 14 to 90 days, depending on environmental conditions.

Tardigrades exhibit similarities with certain invertebrate groups such as Arthropoda and Onychophora. The nature of their relationship with these taxa remains an active area of scientific research, underpinning the fact that there's much to discover about tardigrades.

Given their unique characteristics, tardigrades provide a great platform for research to students and amateur microscopists alike. The insights they offer about survival mechanisms in extreme conditions make them priceless subjects for scientific studies.

Where to Find Tardigrades: A Global Perspective

From the peaks of towering mountains to the abyss of the deep sea, tardigrades have made virtually every corner of the Earth their home. They thrive in varied environments such as freshwater bodies, rainforests, and even in the extreme conditions of the Antarctic. Most species are found in freshwater or semi-aquatic terrestrial environments, with about 150 marine species recorded. Interestingly, they are all considered aquatic, given their need for water to prevent desiccation.

Keen on observing these creatures firsthand? Collect some moss or lichen, soak it in water, and after a few hours, squeeze out the water over a transparent dish. Under a stereo microscope, you may spot these tiny water bears swimming around. Transferring them onto a microscope slide will allow for a closer examination of their unique anatomy.

An In-Depth Look at Tardigrades

With a translucent body allowing their internal organs to be visible, tardigrades are an example of Mother Nature's remarkable creations. Their name, which translates to "slow steppers", aptly describes their locomotion, resembling a ponderous walk more than the scuttle one might expect from such a small creature.

The life cycle of tardigrades involves several molting stages. After hatching from eggs, juveniles undergo a series of molts, each accompanied by growth, until they reach maturity. As for reproduction, tardigrades can be either dioecious or parthenogenetic, meaning they reproduce either sexually or asexually.

Despite their small size, tardigrades are anatomically complex. They possess a digestive system with a mouth, stomach, and anus, a nervous system, and even a rudimentary brain. In addition, they exhibit an intriguing internal feature, the Malpighian tubules, which perform a role similar to the kidneys in humans, by excreting waste from their bodies.

Tardigrades in Extreme Environments

Tardigrades are notorious for their survival skills, withstanding extreme temperatures, freezing and boiling alike, cosmic radiation, high pressure, and even the vacuum of space. Their ability to enter a cryptobiotic state has been the key to this success.

Cryptobiosis is a near-death state that tardigrades can enter to survive unfavorable conditions. In this state, their metabolic activities nearly cease, their bodies retract, and a protective sugar called trehalose surrounds their cells. They can remain in this 'tun' state for years, only to be revived when conditions improve.

Another testament to the tardigrade's resilience is its ability to regenerate. If parts of their bodies are damaged due to exposure to harmful conditions, they can regenerate the lost parts, adding yet another tool to their survival arsenal.

Tardigrades fit the category of extremophiles, organisms that can thrive in environments too harsh for most forms of life. Their ability to withstand extreme conditions lands them a unique position within this classification.

In addition to cryptobiosis, tardigrades employ other defense mechanisms like ecdysis (molting their outer cuticle) and autotomy (shedding body parts when attacked). These features further attest to their status as ultimate survivors.

The reproductive strategies of tardigrades are as fascinating as their survival skills. Some species engage in internal fertilization, where males deposit sperm into the females' bodies. Others simply release eggs and sperm into the surrounding environment, allowing fertilization to occur externally.

Tardigrades on the Moon: A Lunar Tale

In April 2019, an Israeli lunar lander named Beresheet crashed onto the lunar surface. Unbeknownst to many, it was carrying thousands of tardigrades on board, preserved in a dehydrated state.

Beresheet Lunar Lander /Amir Cohen / Reuters

Despite the crash, it's suspected that the tardigrades, in their cryptobiotic state, may have survived. If this is the case, they are the first Earth life forms to inhabit the moon, albeit unintentionally.

The lunar tardigrades stirred up a debate regarding the ethical considerations of planetary protection and the potential risks of contaminating celestial bodies with Earth life. As we progress in our space exploration endeavors, the tale of tardigrades on the moon will continue to evoke discussions about the boundaries of life and the responsibility of humankind as cosmic voyagers.

Sources: carleton.edu / livescience.com / nationalgeographic.com / inverse.com / wired.com