We may need to redefine what “life” is knowing there are biological organisms on this planet that can withstand the vacuum of space, without oxygen and water for long periods of time. Perhaps there are many varieties of what we define as life throughout the universe, organisms who’s biology works from a completely different set of chemical reactions. One thing we do know is that the more we lean about the universe, the more we realize how much more there is to discover…
Tardigrades (also known as waterbears or moss piglets) are water-dwelling, segmented micro-animals, with eight legs. They were first described by the German pastor J.A.E. Goeze in 1773. The name Tardigrada (meaning “slow stepper”) was given three years later by the Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani.
Tardigrades are classified as extremophiles, organisms that can thrive in a physically or geochemically extreme condition that would be detrimental to most life on Earth. For example, tardigrades can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, pressures about six times stronger than pressures found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a person, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 10 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.
Usually, tardigrades are about 0.5 mm (0.020 in) long when they are fully grown. They are short and plump with four pairs of legs, each with four to eight claws also known as “disks”. The animals are prevalent in mosses and lichens and feed on plant cells, algae, and small invertebrates. When collected, they may be viewed under a very-low-power microscope, making them accessible to students and amateur scientists.
Tardigrades form the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. It is an ancient group, with fossils dating from 530 million years ago, in the Cambrian period. The first tardigrades were discovered by Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773. Since 1778, over 1,150 tardigrade species have been found.