2017: Year of the Tardigrade

by Geoff Olson

tardigrade.jpg

A modest proposal for 2017, which threatens to be another tough year: make it “The Year of the Tardigrade.”

The what, you ask?

The tardigrade (pronounced tar-dee-grade) is an itty-bitty creature with eight legs that looks like an air mattress with an attached vacuum cleaner nozzle. It’s almost invisible and nearly indestructible. It’s commonly found in mosses, lichen and damp outdoor spaces.

Discovered back in 1773, the millimeter-sized tardigrade has gone from a scientific curiosity to a pop culture meme. Less technically and more fondly, it’s also known as the “moss piglet” and “water bear.”

In photomicrographs, the multi-limbed critter looks like both alien and comic, like an outtake from a 1950’s Ed Wood film. But there’s the sci-fi part: when its environment dries up, the water bear can lose up to 99 percent of its body water and survive.

In this desiccated state, called a tun, the creature can withstand conditions that would finish off most organisms. Temperatures ranging from boiling hot to near absolute zero? No problem. Atmospheric pressures hundreds of times higher than those found in the Marianias trench? Bring it on. The tardigrade can even momentarily survive the vacuum of space and radiation levels of 57000 rads – over 1000 times the dose fatal to humans.

When “brought back to Earth and hydrated, they exhibited rates of survival close to the individuals that have never left the laboratory,” according to the Tardigradia Newsletter. Some species of tardigrades can live close to 10 years without food or water, making them a category unto themselves as multicellular critters.

The moss piglet’s talent at survival through desiccation, called cryptobiosis, is said to have inspired the development of “dry vaccines,” in which water is replaced with trechalose – a form of sugar which water bears use to safeguard their tissues and genetic material during the tun state. Such vaccines require no refrigeration, allowing their safe transport to and storage at international trouble spots.

The 13th International Symposium on Tardigrada was held in Modena, Italy in 2015, and the 14th will be held in København, Denmark in 2018. It boggles my mind that a dozen previous symposia were devoted to something smaller than the president elect’s hands.

In the U.S., the Tardigrade Hunters website was “founded in 2015 to advance the study of tardigrade (water bear) biology while engaging and collaborating with the public with tips on tracking down water bears.”

The site welcomes amateur collectors to submit specimens for microscopic inspection at the University of Northern Carolina, with the proviso they will not be returned. Any tiny donations that prove to be of exceptional interest may be posted online as the “Tardigrade of the Week.”

Not surprisingly, a creature that is both Japanese anime-cute and semi-indestructible has hit a chord among cultural creatives. There are websites that sell crocheted moss piglets, and others pitching a range of plush toy versions. There is a children’s book called “The Tiny, Tiny Tardigrade,” and an animated cartoon character Captain Tardigrade, who dispenses safety tips to thrill-seeking kids.

A Google Image search of “tardigrade” and “tattoo” reveals plenty of limbs and torsos decorated with the creature’s image and matching mottos (“Tardigrade Tough” and “Live Tiny, Die Never”). A few clicks will take you to images of moss piglet cosplay, and a mockup cover for “International Water Bear” magazine, with its “Moss Munching Hotties.”

Even the Vatican is getting into the water bear craze. Shortly after granting sainthood to Mother Theresa, Pope Paul officially blessed the tardigrade as “an extraordinary organism endowed by God with a Lazarus-like talent at rising from the dead.”

Enraged by this statement, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins recently enlisted fellow atheists Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris to tour in Dawkin’s anti-religious heavy metal band, The Water Bearers. (Their Pope-slamming single “Retardigradia” is available now on iTunes.)

Sorry, those last two paragraphs were shameless fake news of my own making. Couldn’t resist. But seriously: if we’re all going to survive 2017, is there a better mascot for the year than the near-indestructible tardigrade?

I can imagine scientists working in an Pentagon lab on an eight-legged supersoldier capable of surviving insane doses of heat, cold, radiation and pressure. Not in real life, but in a Hollywood film. The trailer is already screening in my mind’s eye: “This Summer….Vin Diesel is The Moss Piglet.”

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 27

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