Secrets of the amazing tardigrades revealed by their DNA

July 27, 2017, Public Library of Science
Scanning electron microscope image of Ramazzottius varieornatus, Credit: Kazuharu Arakawa and Hiroki Higashiyama

New genome sequences shed light on both the origins of the tardigrades (also known as water bears or moss piglets), and the genes that underlie their extraordinary ability to survive in extreme conditions. A team of researchers led by Mark Blaxter and Kazuharu Arakawa from the universities of Edinburgh, Scotland and Keio, Japan respectively, have carefully stitched together the DNA code for two tardigrade species, and their results are presented in an article publishing 27 July in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

Tardigrades are microscopic animals, justly famous for their amazing ability to withstand complete dehydration, resurrecting years later when water is again available. Once desiccated, they have been frozen in ice, exposed to radiation, sent into space vacuum... and still they spring back to life.

Tardigrades became more famous recently when it was suggested that their DNA was a mix of animal and bacterial segments, making them "Frankenstein" hybrids. The new research has now laid the Frankenstein idea to rest by arguing that tardigrade DNA looks "normal," with no evidence that these special animals use extraordinary means to survive. Previous ideas that they might have taken up large numbers of foreign genes from bacteria are shown to be due simply to contamination.

But what is "normal" to a tardigrade is still enigmatic and exciting. At less than a millimetre in length, tardigrades are too small to leave fossils, but using the new genomes, the scientists were able to explore what the DNA could tell them about where tardigrades sit in the tree of animal life. Tardigrades are a distinct type of animal whose closest relatives are arthropods (insects, spiders and their allies) and nematodes (roundworms). But which is closest? While the accepted view is that their four pairs of stubby legs make them more closely related to arthropods, the DNA evidence surprisingly strongly favoured a closer kinship with nematodes.

The researchers then looked at a set of genes—the so-called HOX genes—used to lay down the nose-to-tail pattern in embryos. There are usually about ten different HOX genes in animals, each involved with a different part of the nose-to-tail pattern. They found that tardigrades were missing five HOX genes, and that most nematodes also were missing the same five genes. This is either a coincidence or further evidence that tardigrades and nematodes are closely related.

It was also possible to identify the genes that tardigrades use to resist the adverse effects of desiccation. By asking which were turned on during the drying process, scientists could identify sets of proteins that appear to replace the water that their cells lose, helping to preserve the microscopic structure until water is available again. Other proteins look like they protect the tardigrades' DNA from damage, and may explain why they can survive radiation.

"I have been fascinated by these tiny, endearing for two decades. It is wonderful to finally have their true genomes, and to begin to understand them. It has also been great to work with Kazuharu Arakawa and his Japanese colleagues on this - science is truly global, and together we achieved exciting things," Professor Mark Blaxter said. "This is just the start - with the DNA blueprint we can now find out how resist extremes, and perhaps use their special proteins in biotechnology and medical applications."

Explore further: Tardigrades use unique protein to protect themselves from desiccation

More information: Yoshida Y, Koutsovoulos G, Laetsch DR, Stevens L, Kumar S, Horikawa DD, et al. (2017) Comparative genomics of the tardigrades Hypsibius dujardini and Ramazzottius varieornatus. PLoS Biol 15(7): e2002266.

Related Stories

A huge chunk of a tardigrade's genome comes from foreign DNA

November 23, 2015

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have sequenced the genome of the nearly indestructible tardigrade, the only animal known to survive the extreme environment of outer space, and found something ...

Tardigrades: The last survivors on Earth

July 14, 2017

The world's most indestructible species, the tardigrade, an eight-legged micro-animal, also known as the water bear, will survive until the Sun dies, according to a new Oxford University collaboration.

Recommended for you

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...

A quantum magnet with a topological twist

February 22, 2019

Taking their name from an intricate Japanese basket pattern, kagome magnets are thought to have electronic properties that could be valuable for future quantum devices and applications. Theories predict that some electrons ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.