Microscopic bears hitchhike to the International Space Station7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
You could dip it in boiling water, send it to temperatures wayyy below freezing, expose it to lethal radiation, crush it under the weight of a truck, shoot it in the face with a couple of bullets and then drop it off in the vacuum of space. And even after all that, when you go to check on it, it’ll be alive and thriving.
Can you guess the identity this tough creature?
a figment of my imagination?…
a creature from Percy Jackson?
Well, no, the resilient creature I am talking about is a very real, very tiny bug. Yup, it’s a puny little, almost indestructible bug that looks like a cute yet horrific creature from Alice in Wonderland.
Unscramble this image to find out to meet the outlandish Tardigrade or ‘water bear’.
Now, 5000 of these pudgy creatures will journey to the International Space Station (ISS). That’s right, tickets to Mars are on sale, and odd creatures can’t get enough. I lied a little there, you can’t buy tickets to space yet, but NASA’s scientists have, in fact, decided to send these tiny resilient bugs into space. These little guys are going to make the trip on Space X’s restocking mission today, on the 3rd of June.
You’re probably wondering, well, that’s a lot of money to spend on some bugs. But, you couldn’t be more wrong. The studies that will be conducted on these creatures could not only help us develop medicines and treatments that assist in space travel but also treatments for people on Earth. Scientists plan to study the activities within the cells of these creatures as they survive space to see how exactly their genes or genetic codes adapt to high-stress conditions.
Our genes are what determine all of our characteristics, such as the colour of our eyes, our height, the way in which our faces are shaped, our medical conditions etc. Genes are stored in our cells like computer codes, and slight variations in this code can have a huge impact. Did you know that the genetic code for all humans is 99.9% identical? Just 0.001% of the code accounts for individual differences.
So, scientists have already noted the genetic code or structure of the water bear under normal conditions. Now, they will study the genes of the creatures on the space station to study how the genetic code adapts and acts to help the tiny bugs survive practically anywhere in the Universe.
When the little creatures arrive at the Space Station, they will be frozen. Of course, apart from everything else, these creatures can hibernate too. So, scientists will freeze them for 48 hours and then send them off in a state of ‘tun’. When they are in this state, the water bears need only 0.1% of the energy that they usually need. That way, they can stay alive but do nothing else. It’s the perfect way to pass the time, holed up on a long journey into space.
Baby Bobtail Squids
The tough water bear isn’t the only magnificent miniature creature to be journeying off to space. Scientists are also taking with them tiny 3mm long squids. Baby bobtail squids have been selected for this elite journey, thanks to the glowing bacteria that live in their stomachs.
Much like humans, these jelly-like creatures have bacteria in their stomachs that help them digest their food and support their immune systems. In return, the bacteria get nutrition from whatever the squid eats. This type of mutually beneficial interaction is known as a symbiotic relationship. Scientists would like to examine how this relationship works in space.
How are they going to do it?
Like their tiny bug companions, the baby bobtail squids will be frozen into a state of hibernation for their journey into space. Then, once they are the ISS, scientists will inject the glowing bacteria into the squids’ stomachs. Then, they’ll watch the genetic code of the squid to see how it modifies to make room for the bacteria and create a flourishing symbiotic relationship. Knowing this could help humans better look after their gut and immune system micro-bacteria across long-distance space journeys.
What is bioluminescence?
Can you think of other symbiotic relationships?
What uses could this research have here on Earth?