In the year 9595
I'm kinda wondering if man's gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
-- “In the Year 2525” by Zagar & Evans
Whether the end comes in the year 9595, long before or long after, one thing is for certain – the hearty tardigrade will still be around. The eight-legged micro-animals have survived the cold and radiation of outer space, the extreme heat and pressure of the ocean floor, dehydration, starvation and every other torture humans and nature can dish out and still keep on trucking. Scientists have long documented their superpowers of indestructibility, and researchers in India have found a new species of invincible tardigrade with an additional superpower and a trait that lets them know it’s working.
“We propose that Paramacrobiotus sp. possess a protective fluorescent shield that absorbs harmful UV radiation and emits harmless blue light.”
Sandeep Eswarappa describes in the journal Biology Letters how and his colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore discovered the Paramacrobiotus sp. living in moss on a wall on the grounds of the institute. Bringing them into the lab, they began to test the durability of these unusual tardigrades. First, they were exposed, with a test nematode (Caenorhabditis elegans), to a germicidal ultraviolet lamp. The control nematode (roundworm) was dead in five minutes, while the tardigrades were still smiling and tanning an hour later.
But wait, there’s more.
Not only were the new tardigrades alive, they were glowing in the dark. It turns out they contain a fluorescent chemical that leaves them a glowing blue when exposed to ultraviolet light. That gave the team an idea for another test: they extracted the chemical and rubbed it on another C. elegans and a different tardigrade species (Hypsibius exemplaris) that is known to be vulnerable to ultraviolet light. Both were still alive after 15 minutes and half of the tardigrades showed protecting days later. However, while the protection got transferred, the glow didn’t.
Does this mean anything?
Well, it means Eswarappa and the team get to name the new species, currently referring to it as Paramacrobiotus BLR (for Bangalore). Even better, they get to figure out a way to turn this into a moneymaker. Eswarappa plans to identify the tardigrade’s fluorescent UV-protection compounds and turn them into a sunscreen.
Will a tardigrade’s sunscreen formula help humans survive as well as their tiny super-friends? A more likely scenario is that we’ll reach the year 10000 and the last song the last human will hear will go something like this:
Now it's been 10, 000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man's reign is through
But there on a wall of moss
Tardigrades are now the boss
They’ll never go away
Still glowing for another day
-- “In the Year 2525” (with apologies to Zagar & Evans)