Friday, October 19, 2012

Talk about extreme, have you ever heard of a moss piglet?

Who could fail to be amazed by any creature who loves to live in the harshest and even the deadliest of places; in a pond of scalding water, in toxic acid, and even under a blast of radiation. Scientist have coined the term extremophile to describe organisms adapted to severely inhospitable places. Although most are bacteria or microbes, not all are single cell. Have you ever heard of moss piglets, also known as waterbears?

The short, plump, millimeter-long creatures with four pair of legs and little clawed feet are called tardigrades.  Some are vegetarians and some are hunters; there are 500 different species in all. These guys are found in the wildest of places, like hot springs in the Himalayas, and will blow your mind with what they can do.

Yellowstone National Park
Hot Spring in Yellostone National Park
A tardigrade can enter a cryptobiotic state (a very bizarre, death-like state of life) allowing them to survive in a dehydrated condition and highly toxic environment, even for many years. That's only the beginning.  These little guys could hang out with a batch of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven or take a short bath in liquid hydrogen and still scurry away. The vacuum of space is no worry for them either. A vacation in the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the ocean would be no problem. 10Gy doses of radiation would kill you and me, but moss piglets can take 5,000Gy.
Wunderkammer Moss Piglet

There are other types of multicellular extremophiles, like the deep-sea bristle or Pompeii worms that live around hydrothermic vents and sport red tentacle-like gills, or ice crawlers, wingless insects that live atop the coldest mountains, but nothing beats a moss piglet.

If I were an astrobiologist (someone who studies the possibility of life in the universe) I would have one as my mascot, perhaps even a cuddly tardigrade teddy on my desk. Believe it or not they exist too.  You can learn how to knit one at Wunderkammer.