RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Get ready we're going to talk about tardigrades. Tardigrades, you say? Well, these are microscopic animals that are found almost everywhere on earth. They are the ultimate survivors. They can withstand freezing temperatures, starvation, even the vacuum of outer space. Scientists now think they know how they do it. NPR's Madeline Sofia reports.
MADELINE SOFIA, BYLINE: Tardigrades looks like chubby little caterpillars. They've got eight legs and claws for feet. Some people call them water bears, and the internet loves them.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The tardi-what? Looks like a Hoover bag - or the offspring of Jabba the Hutt. Anyway...
SOFIA: That's one of many YouTube admirers. Thomas Boothby is a postdoc at the University of North Carolina, and he loves them too - but not because they're adorable.
THOMAS BOOTHBY: I don't use them because, like, I think they're cute or - I mean, I do think they're cute. But (laughter) that's not why I study them.
SOFIA: These tiny critters have survived mass extinction events. They've been around for over 500 million years. They're mostly made of water, but they can be completely dried out for a decade and still come back to life. Now, tardigrades aren't the only ones that can do that. Bacteria and yeast can survive superdry conditions using a special sugar. But Boothby thinks tardigrades are up to something different.
BOOTHBY: Tardigrades probably lack the gene that's required to make the sugar in the first place.
SOFIA: Now Boothby thinks he's figured out how tardigrades can survive. When the little tardigrades start to feel stressed, they produced funny-looking proteins. Unlike normal proteins, these don't have a defined structure.
BOOTHBY: They act like these wiggly, like, spaghetti springs, where they're just constantly changing shape.
SOFIA: As the animal dries out, its cells start to fill up with spaghetti proteins. The proteins freeze everything in place, and the cells turn to glass. That protects DNA and other stuff. And when the tardigrade returns to a wet environment, the animal springs back to life.
Boothby's research is published in the journal Molecular Cell. Because these proteins are really good at locking things up and stabilizing them, Boothby thinks it might be possible to use them to preserve sensitive drugs like vaccines. In the future, that could help us send lifesaving drugs to hard-to-reach places.
Madeline Sofia, NPR News.
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