Tardigrades, also known as moss piglets or water bears are the toughest animals in the world. They can live just anywhere, from deep oceans to a high mountain. Boil them at temperatures up to 150 degrees, but these tiny, Muppet-like creatures just won't die. Freeze them to absolute zero temperature, they will still survive.
Surprisingly they have even been found outside of NASA's International Space Station. At that place, the lack of pressure can even kill a human in a matter of minutes. But tardigrades have found it a pleasant place to hang out, enjoy their honeymoon, settle down and produce offspring.
Researchers have now discovered one of their most extraordinary survival techniques. They said that the unique genes in tardigrades let them survive even after drying out.
"The big takeaway from our study is that tardigrades have evolved unique genes that allow them to survive drying out. In addition, the proteins that these genes encode can be used to protect other biological material like bacteria, yeast, and certain enzymes - from desiccation," Dr Thomas Boothby, of North Carolina University, who led the study, said.
These proteins are called TDPs or 'tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins' in honour of the 1mm-long creatures who evolved to have them. Scientists earlier believed that a type of sugar called trehelose was the secret behind the tardigrade's Lazarus-like ability to return from the dead after being dried out for up to 10 years. Tehelose is found in other organisms including brine shrimp.
After the discovery, the scientists placed the genes into yeast and bacteria, which then developed the similar properties as the tardigrades.
TDPs could be used to save crops from drought and to preserve medicines without using a refrigerator, said Dr Boothby.
"Being able to stabilise sensitive pharmaceuticals in a dry state is very important to me personally," he said. "I grew up in Africa, where lack of refrigeration in remote areas is a huge problem. These real-world applications are one of the things that led me to study tardigrades."
The discovery has been published in the journal Molecular Cell.