The Tardigrade, or water bear, is one of the most curious organisms on the planet. The octopedal micro-animal is found all over the Earth in bodies of water and is close to unkillable. The water bear can survive temperatures as low as 1 Kelvin (−458 °F; −272 °C) to as high as 420 Kelvin (300 °F; 150 °C), withstand incredible amounts of pressure greater than those at the bottom of the deepest oceans, survive exposure to deadly radiation, and live in the cold, dead vacuum of outer space. Tardigrades can even enter a state of suspended animation and dry out for over thirty years, only to reanimate fully when rehydrated.
Now, a new discovery based on the sequencing of the water bear genome might have found the gene responsible for its near invulnerability – and better yet, it might be possible to splice this gene into human DNA. The discovery was made by a team of researchers based out of the University of Tokyo, who have published their data in Nature Communications.
According to their research, Tardigrade genes give human cells improved radiotolerance, or resistance to radioactivity, and might be able to someday improve the human genome:
Using human cultured cells, we demonstrate that a tardigrade-unique DNA-associating protein suppresses X-ray-induced DNA damage by ~40% and improves radiotolerance. These findings indicate the relevance of tardigrade-unique proteins to tolerability and tardigrades could be a bountiful source of new protection genes and mechanisms.
One of the study’s lead authors, Takuma Hashimoto, stated in a University of Tokyo press release that the discovery of the damage-supressing gene (Dsup) was a surprise to geneticists who previously believed these genes worked by repairing damaged cells:
What’s astonishing is that previously, molecules that repair damaged DNA were thought to be important for tolerating radiation. On the contrary, Dsup works to minimize the harm inflicted on the DNA.
Gene-editing might soon be a commonplace treatment or prevention method for all sorts of diseases, or could even give us superhuman abilities like the radiation resistance of water bears. Some research institutions have already filed for approval of human gene editing using CRISPR, so be prepared – homo sapiens might soon give way to homo superior.