On the Uses of Tardigrades

On the Uses of Tardigrades October 7, 2016

John Crowe of the University of California, Davis, may not have built molecular engines, but he’s been up to some cool stuff over the past forty years. He’s been working with “water bears,” more technically “tardigrades,” described in a profile of the scientist a “speck-sized organisms that can dry up and survive for years in suspended animation.”

Tardigrades live in mosses and lichens. When the weather begins to dry, the critters anticipate it and produce a sugar coating (trehalose) to encase them, as if under glass, through the dry spell. Once they moisten up, they come back to life. Crowe describes his first encounter with the phenomenon as “sort of a mystical experience”: “Here was this creature that was completely dry—by some definitions dead. Then by adding water, you create life.”

Working with tardigrades and other similar organisms, Crowe and the institute he founded have been able to isolate the sugar and adapt it to a variety of practical uses, “preserving food, medicines, blood components and other cells so they can be freeze-dried, stored at room temperature and later reconstituted with water.”

It’s much more effective than freezing. The expansion and contraction of water in freezing and thawing destroys cell membranes. Trehalose can preserve and restore cells without damage.

(I heard a report about Crowe on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow, found here.)

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