University Of Wyoming Researchers Plan To Send Tardigrades To Space

Jul 7, 2020

Image of an active tardigrade taken with a scanning electron microscope.
Credit Schokraie et al. (2012)

Researchers at the University of Wyoming will send an experiment to the International Space Station this fall. The experiment will look at how tardigrades respond to the stresses of being in space. Tardigrades, or water bears, are tiny animals that live in water and look like chubby gummy bears under a microscope.

UW Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology Thomas Boothby said water bears are some of the toughest animals on Earth.

"You can dry tardigrades out to the point where they lose essentially all the water inside their bodies and cells and they can stay in that dry state for years if not decades," said Boothby. "Then you just pour water back on them and within an hour you'll see them under the microscope running around feeding, reproducing like nothing happened to them."

Boothby and his team look at the tricks water bears use to stay alive in harmful conditions. With their experiment on the International Space Station, they will look at how tardigrades respond to micro-gravity and increased radiation from the Sun.

Boothby said researchers can apply the water bear's tricks to vaccines to make them more stable and accessible.

"By studying organisms like tardigrades, we can learn the tricks they use to protect their sensitive biological material during these stresses and apply that to things like vaccines and other types of pharmaceuticals to stabilize them, increase their shelf life, allow us to transport and store them," said Boothby.

By making vaccines tougher, researchers can make them more accessible for people in remote or developing parts of the world.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.