Scientists Propose Splicing Tardigrade DNA with Humans’

cute microscopic life form capable of surviving outer space

Human beings have long strived to push the boundaries of space exploration and habitation, from the race to the Moon, to the multi-country missions to Mars. But is the human body really the best suited for the next stage of space travel? Beyond the technological and aerospace advances, the largest challenge is also the greatest potential for a scientific revolution – the limitations of the human body’s response to long term and long-distance space travel. 

Surprisingly, the being that is providing many answers to the secrets surrounding space travel might be found in the tiny tardigrade, the microscopic organism that has evolved to survive the most extreme natural circumstances, from the bottom of the ocean to space’s vacuum. Also called “water bears” or “moss piglets,” these organisms measure at .05mm long, but are found literally the world’s many environments. Their unique adaptation process includes being able to survive some of the most extreme heat temperatures and external pressures by shrinking and dehydrating to .001 percent of its original size.

Tardigrades in this stage are called “tuns” in which the organism shuts down it’s metabolism to a near-zero point or cryptobiosis, including complete dehydration and lowered oxygen levels. When they land in a habitable environment, tardigrades are able to rehydrate back to their normal state and size. Research has shown that this evolutionary flexibility carries ramifications beyond environmental hardiness to the actual lifespan of the microorganism. For example, the average lifespan for a tardigrade is 2.5 years; however, scientists have discovered ones in the Antarctic that may be as old as 30 years!

The Resilience of Life

In contrast, the average lifespan of a human is said to be 79 years old, but the variables associated with this age expectancy can range from inherited genetics, economic status, education, geography, and more. Unlike the tardigrade, humans often have to rely on external factors against environmental extremes, both on Earth and in space. 

In addition to this being one of the most interesting scientific adaptations, could it be that the tardigrade’s biological flexibility could have implications for human space travel?

From Twins to Tardigrades: Will Genetic Engineering on Humans Prove Effective?

One of the biggest concerns of space travel is deep-space radiation exposure, especially as we push farther and farther into space. In 2015, NASA studied the genetic impact of deep and long term space on identical twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly in which one twin (Scott) traveled to space for a year, while the other twin (Mark) stayed on Earth. The difference was striking – Scott Kelly experienced severe physical stress including swelling and immune system overdrive, as well as marked differences in his telomeres, which lengthened in unusual ways, in contrast to his Earth-bound twin brother.

The conclusions of this are helping drive the energy behind the exploration of the hybridization of humans and tardigrades capable of withstanding the physical rigors and radiation levels of space travel, specifically in the push to colonize Mars. If this sounds like the plotline out of a futuristic science fiction fantasy, this idea is perhaps closer than we may think. 

Genetic engineering is nothing new and until 2012, it was a time and labor-intensive, messy process. But in 2012, a revolutionary new approach to genetic engineering was introduced – CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats which changed how we discover, map and manipulate genes. he recent CRISPR research is already being utilized to correct genetic mutations in embryos. Could the same cut and paste software approach that CRISPR employs be used to create a superhuman/tardigrade space species? 

Scientists have studied tardigrade DNA to try to uncover the secret behind this almost indestructible organism. The research has been able to closely identify certain proteins emitted when exposed to adverse conditions, such as extreme heat and ice. Other proteins protect against damaging radiation exposure. The impact of this research is beginning to be looked at for biotechnology and medical applications, as well as readiness for deep and extended space travel and habitation. 

Life on Mars; More Than Square Footage

As Mars colonization creeps closer to becoming a reality, NASA is beginning to look at what physical requirements will be needed for human habitation on the red planet  Based on prototypes, the habitats would need to be self-sustaining, impeccably sealed, and with plenty of legroom. Researchers turned to the extended space travel in the International Space Stations for guidance, particularly when it comes to the need for extra square footage.

In contrast, tardigrades require little, or no, external intervention with the likelihood they could easily survive the extreme conditions on planet Mars. In 2007, a number of dehydrated specimens were released into the vacuum of space, with a surprising number not only surviving but being able to return to normal size and reproduce.  

What does this all mean for humans and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for space travel? Will we allow genetic engineers to splice a human’s DNA with a tardigrade, in order to achieve conquering the ultimate frontier? Or will we accept our human limitations and look to apply the tardigrade’s reputation as the toughest being toward other scientific fields such as agriculture or health? 

The danger in taking genetics into our own hands is that the end result may be in creating a species that is unable to live well in either environment, Earth, or space. Time will be the final decider as to whether the risk is worth what may be discovered. 



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Astronomers Confirm Earth Has Two Previously Undiscovered Moons

Astronomers discovered that Earth has two other ‘moons’ in addition to the one we’re all familiar with, according to a study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. That is, if you’ll consider two massive dust clouds to technically be called moons.

Though astronomers had an inkling there might be other natural satellites in Earth’s orbit, none had ever been officially recorded until just recently. And now Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski is probably laughing from his grave, saying “I told you so,” as he was the first to report seeing the dust moons in 1961. At least they honored him by naming these pseudo-satellites Kordylewski clouds.

The clouds were officially discovered by Hungarian astronomers Gabor Horvath and Judit Sliz-Balogh of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Using special equipment, the two were able to clearly distinguish the hazy clouds against the dark backdrop of empty space.

But with all of the technology in the aerospace industry it’s odd we’re just finding these dust clouds that have been orbiting our planet at Lagrange Points – the position where they remain balanced by the centripetal force of their orbit and the gravitational pull of the Earth and Sun. Our dust moons reside in the L4 and L5 Lagrange points.

And it’s within these Lagrange points that NASA planned to put satellites in a holding position to conserve fuel for interplanetary missions, including trips to Mars. With potential missions on the horizon, it’s a good thing these cosmic dust bunnies were confirmed in the event they might pose any threat to spacecraft.

“The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy,” Slíz-Balogh said. “It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor.”

The clouds are in orbit at about 250,000 miles from the Earth, roughly the same distance our previously known moon orbits, and have been referred to by NatGeo as something like cosmic tumbleweed.

An artist’s depiction of a dust moon

 

It’s unclear how long these clouds have been in orbit, though it’s almost certain they’ve been there since 1961, when Kordylewski first observed them. And it’s possible they may eventually dissipate entirely, making them ephemeral moons of sort.

No one has yet commented on the way these ‘moons’ might affect astrological phenomena here on Earth. Could it be possible that the dust moons’ orbit influences our daily lives much like the traditional moon? And how long has its presence made an impact?

The search for another moon orbiting Earth does have history, as astronomers as far back as the 19th century have claimed to observe other large natural satellites in our planet’s orbit. Many of these have been written off as near-Earth objects (NEOs) whose orbits are in resonance with Earth, or are “Earth trojans,” which orbit the Sun on a similar path as Earth.

Often these objects temporarily enter our orbit and are reported for centuries as anomalous observations by professional and amateur astronomers alike. In some cases, there have even been reports of potential alien satellites orbiting the planet in retrograde, though this instance is highly contentious.

This latest news comes after China’s announced plan to launch an artificial moon into orbit to light up some of its cities at night. The announcement riled up hollow moon theories that have posited our moon may be an artificial satellite based on some anomalous features observed over the years.

Whatever the case may be, the definition of a “moon” is getting more and more confusing. Can’t we just go back to everyone’s favorite lunar conspiracy – the one where the moon is made of cheese?

 

For more on some of the strange anomalies surrounding one of Earth’s most well-known satellites watch this episode of Deep Space

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