Tanaka S, Sagara H, Kunieda.
Tanaka S, Sagara H, Kunieda.

Water Bears’ DNA Makes Them Practically Indestructible

Tanaka S, Sagara H, Kunieda.
Tanaka S, Sagara H, Kunieda.

Burn it. Freeze it. Chuck it into space. Water bear don’t care. The water bear, also known as the tardigrade or moss piglet, is one of the weirdest and toughest creatures on the planet. Now new research published in the journal Nature Communications suggests we might someday be able to borrow its resilience to use in our own flimsy, floppy bodies.

Tardigrades are extremophiles—that is, they can keep trucking in unbelievably hostile environments, from scorching deserts to the vacuum of space. This astonishing near-indestructibility has, understandably, made them especially appealing to scientists, who have been working for years to pick apart the genetic basis of the microscopic creatures’ badassery. But the more we learn about these creatures, the weirder they seem to get.

In 2015, a group of researchers reported one possible source of the tardigrade’s toughness: burglary. While looking at the genome of the tardigrade species Hypsibius dujardini, the team said they found all kinds of genes that belonged to other organisms, including fungi and bacteria. Horizontal gene transfer (when one organism swipes genes from another) is not unheard of, but H. dujardini appeared to have taken it to the next level, with a full 17 percent of its genes yoinked from other species.

Even for the moss piglet, this seemed kind of, well, extreme. When other scientists tried to replicate the original team’s results, they found only tiny amounts of horizontal gene transfer—about 1 or 2 percent. They said the original team’s samples had likely been contaminated. #tardigate ensued. The tardigrade remained a tiny, scrappy enigma.

Scientists kept at it. The latest research, published today, may have cracked some of the mystery. Researchers in Japan examined the genome of an especially hardy water bear named Ramazzottius varieornatus. In comparing the tardigrade’s genetic codes with those of worms and flies, they found way more genes related to surviving stressful conditions.

In the video below, by researcher Daiki D. Horikawa, you can see R. varieornatus encounter one stressful condition: a lack of water. The tardigrade dries out and shrinks up, seemingly dead. But it isn't. Given a drop of water, it plumps right up, stretches its little legs, and begins to move around.

Then the team took the study to the next level. They found a resilience-boosting protein they called Damage suppressor (Dsup) that appears to be completely unique to tardigrades. Then they inserted Dsup into human cells, which then became more resistant to damage from x-ray radiation.

There’s a lot here to get excited about, says Sujai Kumar, a genome informatician at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author on the #tardigate-triggering study. “The Japanese team's genome sequencing methodology is exemplary,” he tells mental_floss. The depth and breadth of their investigation have yielded a huge quantity of information that will continue to help other researchers unravel the tardigrade mystery.

Even better, Kumar says, were the Japanese researchers’ “really cool” studies in human cells. “Although not quite at the level of a superheroine origin story,” he says, “this is a great example of a gene from an extremotolerant species conferring a 'super power' to a human cell, and is an exciting finding.”

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Authorities Want This Roadside Bear Statue in Wales Removed Before It Causes More Accidents
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There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

Wooden bear statue.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

Man high-fiving his dog.
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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

Man running in surf with dog.
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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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