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Surviving Dessication – Learning From A Strange Protein

Drought-resistant crops using tardigrade protein

Scientists have discovered a unique protein which could be the key to increasing food stability and increasing human resistance to X-ray radiation.

The water bear or the tardigrade may not look like much, but scientists have just proven that they are one of – if not the most- resilient creatures on the planet. This microscopic critter can survive drought, freezing temperatures, cosmic radiation, and even starvation by turning itself into ‘glass’. The water bear can stay in suspended animation for decades by activating a unique protein; but what is even more amazing is that it can make a full recovery after just a few hours of being re-hydrated.

This ground-breaking discovery was recently published by researchers at the Molecular Cell science journal. The results have excited the scientific community because of its wide-range of applications and bold potential in various fields. reportsWater Bear - Tardigrade - Protein could help against drought and radiation that tardigrade protein can make yeast drought-resistant and can boost the resilience of different organisms by as much as 100 times. Looking ahead, the tardigrade protein can be worked into plants to make them impervious to drought. It can likewise be used to stabilize sensitive vaccines and break cold-chain dependence which is a big hurdle in the pharmaceutical world.

However, it does not stop with plants and vaccines. Last year, Japanese researchers revealed that water bears have a radiation shield protecting their DNA. According to researchers, this discovery can help make humans more resistant to X-ray radiation by as much as 40%. More importantly, the tardigrade’s ability to go into suspended animation and be re-animated in a short period of time can advance the study of cryogenics or finally send astronauts to Mars in the near future.

Postdoctoral researcher Thomas Boothby from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the study’s co-authors. He revealed that tardigrades can be revived by placing them in water. Within a few hours they eat, ‘run’ around, and reproduce without difficulty even after going into hibernation for decades.

Protein not Sugar

The CS Monitor explains how water bears survive dessication, not with a sugar called trehalose as was originally believed, but through a process called vitrification. As their environment dries out, the water bears activate the special genes in their DNA which create the disordered proteins that protect their cells.

As the tardigrade protein fills up the cells, they later dry out and become a glass-like substance. The glass matrix basically traps the dessication-sensitive molecules and keeps them from breaking apart. When the tardigrade is reintroduced to water, the glass matrix breaks and the cells are left intact.

The tardigrade protein works for the waters bears as trehalose does for other creatures such as brine shrimp or sea monkeys.

Scientists are elated at the possibilities of their discovery. The results can be used to develop food crops that survive drought – ending years of famine in Africa and other countries. Tardigrade protein can be used to facilitate cheaper and wider distribution of medicine and vaccines all over the world.  And who knows, this development could be the first step in helping humans cope with the pressures of extended interstellar travel.

So many daring and bold possibilities may finally become a reality thanks to one microscopic, eight-legged creature.

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