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How the Earth's 'Hardiest Animal' Could Pave Way to Radiation-Resistant Humans, Life on Mars

Sep 22, 2016 03:51 AM EDT

Researchers have discovered the secrets of tardigrades, the world's "hardiest animal," and how these water bears could survive extreme temperatures and radiation. Could humans one day survive X-ray and Mars?

Water Bear's New Superpower

According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo has found a specific kind of protein that protects the tardigrades' DNA.

Tagged as "Dsup" (short for "damage depressor"), the said protein envelopes the animal's DNA This breaks previous scientific assumptions that tardigrades survive radiation and extreme conditions by having the ability to repair the damage done on their DNA.

To see how "Dsup" protects these water bears, the researchers inserted the gene into the DNA of human cells. The said cells were then exposed to X-rays, and surprisingly, compared to normal human cells, those with "Dsup" have less broken DNA, Popular Science reports.

"This is the first time an individual protein from a tardigrade has been shown to be active in radiation protection. [And] radiation is one of the things that's guaranteed to kill you," Mark Blaxter, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told BBC.

Radiation-Resistant Humans, Life on Mars a Possibility?

Tardigrades' protection and resilience have been proven throughout the years. In fact, in 2007, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent thousands of tardigrades into space to know if they would survive the vacuum of space. ESA found out that not only did these animals survived, they were able to multiply as well.

This breakthrough discovery opens up possibilities of human cells having to withstand extreme damages -- even space. However, study author Takekazu Kunieda and his team believe that tardigrades still have other secret survival weapons, and the "Dsup" gene is just the beginning.

"Tardigrades have other tricks up their sleeves, which we have yet to identify," said Prof Matthew Cobb from the University of Manchester. "These genes could even help us bioengineer organisms to survive in extremely hostile environments, such as on the surface of Mars - [perhaps] as part of a terra-forming project to make the planet hospitable for humans".

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