Putting the life back in science fiction

And We Thought Hibernation Was Simple 2: now with bleach

Most of a year ago, I posted about the first tardigrade genome sequence, which apparently had a lot of bacterial genes in it.  Now, another group has published another genome (io9 article here, report here), and this apparently changes everything, possibly in a better way.  Or possibly, we’ll see some horror move remake of The Fly, only with Ramazzottius varieornatus at the hybridizing end (paging John Scalzi.  I’ve got your vacuum-sucking warriors right here).

The short version is that, where the first tardigrade genome found that their genome had 17.5% non-tardigrade sequences, the new one found only 1.2%.  There are two possible sources for the differences.  The unlikely one is that the second group sequenced one of the most resistant species of tardigrade known, and apparently did a better job, while the first group sequenced a freshwater tardigrade that’s not very resistant but otherwise incredibly promiscuous when it comes to copping other beings’ genes.  The likely explanation is that the second group took sterilization seriously, and bleached the hell out of their tardigrades before sequencing them.  Getting rid of surface junk and stuff in guts actually matters, when you’re doing a genome.  Silly me, I’d figured that everyone did this, but quite possibly, the first group didn’t.  Of course, it would be incredibly cool if one group of tardigrades specialized in horizontal gene transfer and another didn’t, but unfortunately for us space cadets, it’s the less durable tardigrades that would be the promiscuous biohackers, so it would just be cool, not useful.  Grumpy type that I am, though, I tend to buy contamination before I buy crazy new biology.

The good news is that R. varieornatus has all sorts of funky genes for various forms of stress tolerance and desiccation tolerance.  The cool gene the researchers are already playing with (presumably it’s already patented up the wazoo) apparently reduces x-ray damage to DNA by up to 40%, at least in an experimental setup where the gene was fused with cultured human cells. That gene is known as Dsup, and I almost hope that the human compatible version is Wassup, although I have yet to figure out the backronym that would make this work.

Anyway, if the second study holds up and the first one is discarded, the good news is that hibernation might be back on the menu again for interstellar voyaging.  At least, interstellar voyaging if you’re related to  Ramazzottius varieornatus or have their byproducts in you.  Perhaps in our near-future SF books, we’ll jazz up human genomes with a judicious sprinkling of tardigrade genes, then send ’em off to settle Proxima Centauri as highly irradiated corpsicles (Wassup with that?).  In real life, perhaps Dsup protein will just get used in a *really* expensive lotion to be sold to cancer patients for smearing on areas adjacent to where they get irradiated.  Or as the world’s most expensive sunscreen after the platinum foil facial.

And hopefully, this has taken your attention away from US politics for a few precious minutes.  Hope it helps.





3 Comments so far
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I know it would be really, really, bad. But part of me wants to add a tiny container of dessicated tardigrades to every space shot, and especially missions involving land fall. There may not be life on Europa, but there will be.

Comment by Julian Bond

Also. I hope people are tracking and competing for the prize of “oldest Tardigrade successfully re-animated”. It’s not just Anthrax that’s coming back to life as the Siberian Permafrost melts.

Comment by Julian Bond

Haven’t read the original research so don’t know what the detailed findings were/are. However, based on the initial finding of 17.5% non-tardigrade sequences vs, the new finding of only 1.2%. suggests – apart from what you said – that these researchers need (a) a larger ‘n’ of these critters to sequence and (b) from as a diverse range of conditions as possible, i.e., many different microcritters in their immediate environment vs. next to no other microcritters.

Also, if this species is as deft at swapping its genomic innards as the first finding suggests, then the specific environments and DNA portion swapped would be very informative including whether radiation proofing is variable or not, and under what circumstances. Ditto for exome mapping under range fo conditions.

Another question: Does this DNA swapping correspond with the critter’s age, in other words — is this critter adding and hoarding external DNA instead of creating antibodies to fend off attack from other creatures? (Human infants have next to no antibodies. Antibodies accumulate over a lifetime; they’re a unique biochem biography of each human, i.e., the most reliable way of telling apart identical twins.)

Comment by SFreader

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