Mutant spider bites, exposure to radiation, freakish lab accidents, huge sums of wealth or just innate abilities give rise to figures that young and old adore. Super heroes! Their stories can sound just as fantastic as their powers. What if I were to tell you that some fantastic powers are real and transferable? Would you believe me?
On a third planet revolving about a yellow sun resides a being possessing the ultimate defenses. This entity has been hurled into the vacuum of space or abandoned in the driest of places only to survive (Boothby et al., 2017; Jonsson, Rabbow, Schill, Harms-Ringdahl, & Rettberg, 2008). No matter what the “evil” scientists can think of the “hero” thwarts their attempts and survives. Who is this remarkable protagonist? It is the lowly water bear (a.k.a. Tardigrades).
Poked and prodded for centuries, the mighty water bear finally revealed a source of its power to a team of scientists (Boothby et al., 2017). The secret lay within the water bear’s tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins, which lack a rigid structure and resemble spaghetti. Upon the water bear’s exposure to dry conditions, these proteins weave around things within the cells, essentially freezing everything in place. This act places the water bear in a suspended animation-like state. The water bear can survive in this state for years if not decades, until favorable conditions present themselves.
With the source of the power identified, the scientists transferred the formidable water bear’s power (i.e., they inserted the gene) into their usual lab minions, yeast and bacteria. The transfer was successful: The bacteria and yeast recipients could now withstand the harsh dry conditions too.
Not as exciting as lasers coming out eyeballs or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, the water bear’s transferable superpower still holds potential for helping mankind (Boothby et al., 2017). For example, the technology could help feed the masses through the engineering of drought-tolerant crops. It could also prolong the shelf-life of life-saving medicines and research supplies.
Only one more question remains regarding the superhero water bear: What would its costume look like?
Boothby, T. C., Tapia, H., Brozena, A. H., Piszkiewicz, S., Smith, A. E., Giovannini, I., . . . Goldstein, B. (2017). Tardigrades Use Intrinsically Disordered Proteins to Survive Desiccation. Mol Cell, 65(6), 975-984 e975. doi:10.1016/j.molcel.2017.02.018
Jonsson, K. I., Rabbow, E., Schill, R. O., Harms-Ringdahl, M., & Rettberg, P. (2008). Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit. Curr Biol, 18(17), R729-R731. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.06.048