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Tardigrades Produce Glass Shields to Survive Extreme Conditions

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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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These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

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Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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