What Makes Tiny Tardigrades Nearly Radiation-Proof

New research finds that the microscopic “water bears" are remarkably good at repairing their DNA after a huge blast of radiation.

Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a water bear, or tardigrade (phylum Tardigrada). Water bears are small, water-dwelling, segmented micro-animals with eight legs that live in damp habitats such as moss or lichen. (Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library)

To introduce her children to the hidden marvels of the animal kingdom a few years ago, Anne De Cian stepped into her garden in Paris. Dr. De Cian, a molecular biologist, gathered bits of moss, then came back inside to soak them in water and place them under a microscope. Her children gazed into the eyepiece at strange, eight-legged creatures clambering over the moss. “They were impressed,” Dr. De Cian said. But she was not finished with the tiny beasts, known as tardigrades. She brought them to her laboratory at the French National Museum of Natural History, where she and her colleagues hit them with gamma rays. The blasts were hundreds of times greater than the radiation required to kill a human being. Yet the tardigrades survived, going on with their lives as if nothing had happened.

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