Tardigrade-Tough Applications for Humans

September 22, 2020

Tardigrades are hardy creatures, capable of enduring conditions other animals can’t survive. What can humans learn from their methods of survival?

Radiation Resistance

Tardigrade cells contain special proteins that protect DNA from breaking down under stress, such as extreme heat, cold or radiation. In 2007, tardigrades were exposed to the radiation of space for 10 days and survived. Researchers sought to impart their survivability in humans by binding tardigrade proteins to human cells. The produced cells showed 40-50% reduced x-ray damage compared to normal human cells. If these results could be replicated outside the lab, astronauts would gain improved protection against the radiation of space.

One of the issues behind the theoretical colonization of another planet in our solar system is the absence of Earth’s atmosphere, which protects its inhabitants (both plants and animals) from the radiation of the sun. If human and plant cells possessed the same properties of a tardigrade’s, space colonization could take one more step toward reality.

Medical Advances

When tardigrades find themselves without water, they dehydrate themselves, losing 99% of their water mass. They can survive in this shriveled and hibernative state for decades, with sugars and proteins preserving their cells until water contact reactivates them. This process has exciting potential for medical advances if scientists can replicate it.

Donated blood platelets only maintain viability for a few days. Researchers dehydrated blood platelets after infusing them with sugars found in tardigrades. 90% of the platelets were viable after rehydration. Although the platelets did have some abnormalities from fresh blood, their healing factor remained uncompromised. The dehydrated platelets could be stored for two years and are currently undergoing clinical trials.

Research is also underway using tardigrade sugars and proteins to create dry vaccines that won’t require refrigeration, resulting in a longer shelf life and improved portability. This would help vaccines reach people in developing countries; the greatest hurdle for vaccination programs is the need for refrigeration. The research could also be applied to preserving temperature-sensitive medications in military zones.

DARPA created the Biostasis program to support research in slowing the body’s metabolic processes following traumatic injury. Based on the tardigrade’s ability to dehydrate and suspend their bodily processes for decades, applying this state to a human being could save them from bleeding out or stop the progression of sepsis or damage from a stroke or heart attack.

Tardigrade Tech for Sunscreen and More

Tardigrade cell proteins could be used to protect patients undergoing radiation therapy or incorporated into more effective sunscreen. Instead of dying during a drought, crops in biostasis would hibernate until water returned.