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Frank Fo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Frank Fo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Tardigrades Produce Glass Shields to Survive Extreme Conditions

Frank Fo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Frank Fo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nothing the tardigrade does could really surprise us at this point. Scientists now say the microscopic critters produce “glass shields” inside their cells to protect vital chemicals from drying out. They published their report on the tardigrades’ latest bizarre talent in the journal Molecular Cell.

Tardigrades, also known adorably as water bears or moss piglets, may be the most extreme organisms on or off this planet. When the going gets tough—whether that’s high heat, freezing cold, extreme dryness, or the vacuum of space—tardigrades dry up and shut down, going into a near-death state called cryptobiosis. Later, when the environment is livable again, they spring back to life like tiny, many-legged Snow Whites. Exactly how they pull this off has remained something of a mystery.

There are other organisms that can survive drying up and rehydrating. Many of them do so by producing a sugar called trehalose, which vitrifies, or turns into glass, inside their cells, creating a protective coating around life-sustaining proteins and other molecules.

But not all tardigrade species can make trehalose—which suggested to scientists that the water bears might produce their own proprietary material to keep their molecules safe.

Researchers pored over the genomes of the commonly studied tardigrade species Hypsibius dujardini and Paramacrobiotus richtersi looking for genes that might let the critters pump out some form of protective gear.

They found a few. Drying out the tardigrades prompted both species to switch on genes associated with weird chemicals called intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). The specific IDPs were, unsurprisingly, unique to tardigrades and haven’t been seen in any other organisms.

If we can figure out how to harness these genes, the authors say, we could solve big problems in keeping both crops and biomedical samples safe in extreme conditions.

[h/t Science]

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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