One of the most ancient creatures on Earth is the cockroach. Extreme radiation, asteroid impacts, and more recently, poisoning from humans – the cockroach has survived it all.
Despite all this, cockroaches are still not the “hardiest” animal known to science; that title goes to the tardigrade.
Commonly referred to as “water bears”, tardigrades are microscopic organisms that live in both freshwater and in the sea, feeding mostly on moss. Scientists don’t know much about tardigrades, other than the fact that they can survive almost anything.
And when I say anything, I really mean anything.
Although technically aquatic, tardigrades can survive for decades without water; they simply rehydrate and come back to life in minutes once exposed to water again. They can be frozen solid, or heated to temperatures of 151 °C (304 °F). They can survive being blasted with unimaginable levels of radiation – 1,000 times more than any other animal. In 2007, the European Space Agency ejected thousands of tardigrades into space; they not only survived, but actually multiplied in complete vacuum conditions.
Until now, this extreme survivability has baffled scientists. Researchers at the University of Tokyo have recently traced the extreme characteristics to a simple gene.
Empowered by this new gene, the Japanese scientists have formulated new ideas about the limits of human survivability. They have even gone so far as to inject the gene (which they have named “Dsup”, short for “damage suppressor”) into human samples, exposing them to abnormally high levels of radiation. Amazingly, the human cells with Dsup injected into their DNA fared better in the radiation than those without.
Scientists hope that one day, the Dsup gene from these tiny organisms may keep humans alive in previously-deadly conditions – on Earth, and in space.