Just when we thought the strangest creature on the planet couldn't get any weirder, science found they do

Picture: Schokraie, Warnken, Hotz-Wagenblatt, Grohme, Hengherr/Wikipedia Commons

Tardigrades, the water-dwelling, 8-legged, segmented micro-animals first discovered in 1773 – otherwise known as water bears – can turn themselves into glass.

And if you drop those dehydrated animals into water 10 years later, they come back to the world of the living.

Think about that for a moment and how humans can only process that kind of ability in terms of a Hollywood superhero movie:

We’ve known for some time that tardigrades are the toughest creatures on the planet. They survive just about anywhere in extreme temperatures at both ends, including space, are virtually unsquashable and eat radiation for breakfast.

They’re also easy enough for schoolkids to find in a patch of moss and study under a microscope, so they get plenty of scrutiny.

Now scientists have unlocked a piece of the puzzle that tells them how tardigrades can survive without food or water for as long as 30 years. They are partly made up of unique proteins called tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs).

When tardigrades are hydrated, these proteins stay in a jelly-like state. When the tardigrade loses enough water, the TDPs vitrify. They literally turn to glass, which traps all the remaining goodness in the tardigrade and keeps it from degrading until it touches water again.

Thomas Boothby, of the University of North Carolina, and his team discovered this after blocking the activity of the genes that made TDPs, only to find the tardigrades soon dehydrated and died.

They published their findings in the journal Molecular Cell.

The team went on to show that equpping yeast and bacteria with the same gene gave them the same ability to fight dehydration, and think the process may be used to make crops more drought-resistant.

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