Nicknamed water bears and moss piglets, the tiny creatures called tardigrades are adorable under the laser scanning microscope. Plus they can survive in the vacuum of space.
Image by Andreas Schmidt-Rhaesa, Corinna Schulze and Ricardo Neves/Nikon Small World
The biggest tardigrades never get to be more than about 1.5 mm long, and most of them spend most of their days eating algae or bacteria and swimming around in droplets of water on moss or lichen. In fact, many kinds of tardigrades turn green when they eat because their bodies are transparent.
They can go into a state of suspended animation and survive for a long period of time without water — and even without oxygen. Scientists have discovered that they are able to survive even in the vacuum of space.
The image above shows the internal body structure of the tardigrade. The oval area is the hard outer shell, known as a cuticle. Their soft, unjointed legs stick out from under it, much the way the legs of a potato bug stick out from under its segmented shell. Scientists at the University of Hamburg-Zoological Museum Hamburg were also able to see the animal’s internal organs.
The team used a confocal laser scanning microscope, which creates sharply defined photographs with a shallow field of focus. Stacking several photographic layers, each assigned a different color, they obtained this well-defined image of the entire animal.
If you want to see even more pictures of tardigrades, I recommend checking out the Goldstein Lab’s website, at UNC Chapel Hill.
Tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” are microscopic animals capable of withstanding some of the most severe environmental conditions. Researchers from Japan have now created the most accurate picture yet of the tardigrade genome, revealing the neat tricks it uses to stay alive.
In a new study published in Nature Communications, geneticist Takekazu Kunieda and his colleagues from the University of Tokyo present a genetic analysis of Ramazzottius variornatus, arguably the toughest and most resilient species found in the entire tardigrade clan. Their results show that tardigrades have evolved a unique arsenal of strategies to cope with stressful conditions, including a protein that protects its DNA from radiation damage.
When the researchers transplanted this protein to cultured human cells, the same protections still applied—a finding with potential applications to cellular preservation methods, genomic therapies, and the burgeoning science oftransgenics.
Tardigrades are strangely adorable microscopic creatures that are capable of withstanding some of the worst that nature can throw at them. Classified as “extremophiles,” they can survive freezing, total dehydration, radiation, and even the vacuum of space. Tardigrades are an ancient species that diverged from ancestral animals back in the pre-Cambrian period (~600 million years ago), and likely evolved their own unique genes over a protracted period of time.
Earlier this year, scientistssuccessfully revived a tardigrade that had been frozen solid for more than three decades—a new record for this durable species. Needless to say, scientists are understandably curious about tardigrades; research into these ancient creatures could tell us something about alien life on other planets, and how we might be able to leverage tardigrade biology in medicine and genetics.
This isn’t the first time that scientists have sequenced a tardigrade genome. Last year, geneticists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill performed similar research, revealing the tardigrade’s truly bizarre genetic constitution. These researchers found that 17.5 percent of the tardigrade genome comes from other organisms, including plants, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. The water bear, it would seem, acquired many of its characteristics not as a result of its own evolution, but through the toil of others in a process called horizontal gene transfer.
The new research from the University of Tokyo challenges this assumption, showing that the vast majority of tardigrade characteristics are truly “proprietary,” and not the result of horizontal gene transfer.
The new study differed from the previous one in some very important ways. The researchers used one of the most resilient tardigrade species on the planet, R. varieornatus, whereas the previous study looked at Hypsibius dujardini, which is among the least tolerant freshwater species of tardigrade.
Also, the researchers successfully eliminated all extraneous bacteria (using commercial chlorine bleach, among other measures), which allowed them to scan the tardigrade genome without any contaminants. This is important because the authors of the original study claimed that an incredible amount of bacterial genes were included in the tardigrade genome.
Lastly, the researchers were able to sequence the tardigrade genome at a much higher level of accuracy, creating a genetic profile that was 100 times less fragmented than the previous one.
Looking at the newly sequenced genome, the researchers observed that the proportion of foreign genes is closer to 1.2 percent, which is much lower than the 17.5 percent claimed last year.
“The proportion of 1.2 percent is not so special in the animal kingdom, and thus extensive horizontal gene transfer is not common in tardigrades, if any,” Kunieda told Gizmodo. “A striking feature of tardigrades is that they have developed—and abundantly express—tardigrade-unique genes, and some of them likely play important roles in tolerance.”
The authors of the new study were able to pinpoint a number of genes and biological processes responsible for the tardigrades’ remarkable survival skills.
For example, its genome contains more copies of an anti-oxidant enzyme and a DNA-repair gene than any other animal. Kunieda says these tools help the tardigrade counteract oxidative stress when it’s dehydrated, and to efficiently repair its damaged DNA.
They also found that the hardy water bear expresses a tardigrade-specific protein that binds itself to DNA. This unique protein, dubbed Dsup, acts like a shield against x-ray radiation, preventing the DNA from snapping apart. This would help to explain why tardigrades are seemingly impervious to radiation, and why they can survive the vacuum of space.
This tolerance to x-rays can be transferred to the cells of other animals. On tests using cultured human cells, the researchers demonstrated that Dsup suppresses x-ray-induced DNA damage by a whopping 40 percent. If this tardigrade-specific protein could be transplanted to live humans, it could improve our own tolerance against X-rays. And perhaps tardigrade biology could be used to make humans more adaptable to space.
“Once Dsup can be incorporated into humans, it may improve radio-tolerance,” said Kunieda. “But at the moment, we’d need genetic manipulations to do this, and I don’t think this will happen in the near future.” He also says that Dsup isn’t perfect, as it reduces the damage done by radiation to DNA by approximately half, “which is significant, but still only half.” What’s more, he’s confident that tardigrades use other strategies in addition to Dsup to fend off the effects of radiation.
That said, Kunieda sees big things for Dsup, and other “extremotolerant” characteristics, both those that have already been discovered, and those still waiting to be found. “Using these tolerant genes collectively, we could confer enhanced tolerance to other animals,” he said. “Especially, if dehydration-tolerance can become transferable, I hope it will transform the way we preserve various biological materials, including cells, crops, meats, fish, and so on.”
More work still needs to be done to fully understand the remarkable tardigrade genome. But one thing’s for certain—this creature is a survivor, and we would do well to learn its many tricks.
An Italian neuroscientist who wants to perform the world’s first human head transplant next year is claiming to have conducted radical spinal cord experiments on mice, rats, and a dog. Experts say the results are vague and incomplete, and that talk of human head transplants are grossly premature.
In a series of papers published in Surgical Neurology International, neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero describes recent experiments using a chemical called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, which his team is using to reconnect severely damaged spinal cords. Accompanying video shows a mouse dragging itself across the floor, and a rat and dog in various stages of recovery.
In one of the experiments, Canavero, with the help of C-Yoon Kim from Konkuk University in Seoul, severed the spinal cord of 16 mice. PEG was injected into the injured areas of half of the mice, while the other half received a saline solution. Four weeks after the surgery, five of the eight mice in the PEG group had regained some mobility, while the other three died. None of the mice in the control group were able to move afterwards. The chemical works by reconnecting the two fused ends of the spinal cord —a meticulous healing process that involves thousands of neurons.
In a second experiment with similar results, rats were given a juiced-up version of PEG that uses graphene nanoribbons—an electrically conductive material—that serves as a scaffold along which neurons can grow. Unfortunately, the results of this experiment were incomplete because a flood in the lab killed four of the five rats treated with new-and-improved PEG.
For the experiment on the dog, the researchers severed about 90 percent of its spinal cord. Two weeks later, the dog was able to drag its hind legs, and after the third week it was able to walk, grab objects, and wag its tail. No other dog was experimented on, which means there were no controls. This was basically a single case study.
But as New Scientistreports, experts aren’t impressed by the experiments, complaining about the small sample sizes, the absence of controls in the dog experiment, and insufficient evidence proving that the canine’s spinal cord was damaged to the degree reported.
Despite these recent animal studies, there’s no compelling evidence to believe that a human head transplant will work, or that it’ll endow the Russian patient with a body that’s superior or longer-lasting than the one he currently has. Earlier this year, the same team reportedly performed a head transplant on a monkey, but the results weren’t published.
Given the inexplicably short timelines that these researchers have imposed upon themselves, it’s clear they’re rushing into this. Realistically, it takes about a decade or more for lab experiments to translate into actual practice. If these maverick researchers aren’t careful, they could actually kill this desperate young man.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
The practice of writing a prominent official or scholar for advice dates back hundreds of years, if not more. In the 1690s, for example, Londoners sent letters to the Athenian Mercury, a twice weekly newspaper that published the questions about everything from love to sin. Religious figures have also frequently been sought out for correspondence by people seeking absolution or guidance in times of hardship. Such exchanges have long been a window into society’s fears and anxieties.
Indeed the same may be true for written correspondence from individuals living in parts of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which paints a bleak picture of life for both ISIL members and civilians still living under the its control.
The correspondence, obtained by The Intercept and Al Jazeera, was sent to a religious scholar living in Jordan who has been associated with other groups in the past, but is critical of ISIL. The messages come from people in ISIL-held territory, both members of the group and civilians, who are seeking his religious advice. Wanting such counsel from religious figures is common in the Muslim world, but the recipient of these messages in particularly respected among Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
The religious figure is not named here in order to protect his legal status in Jordan.
The advice seekers are unrelated: one is an ISIL fighter in Fallujah, and the other is a Sunni Muslim civilian living in Mosul.
The correspondence took place from early June to mid August, and coincided with major events in those cities reported by international media – including the Iraqi government’s offensive to retake Fallujah and the increasing pressure on the inhabitants of Mosul in preparation for the operation.
“The battle for Fallujah was a success in that it ended with ISIS driven out and a government established that had representation from the local Sunni community,” says Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of the political risk publication Inside Iraq Politics.
“Having said that, there was a lot of ugliness associated with the campaign, including damage to infrastructure and allegations of abuses by Shia militia groups.”
The messages from these cities offer a glimpse into the effect of military pressure on ISIL fighters in Iraq, as well as the fears of some Sunni Muslims that they would be the target of reprisals when their cities were recaptured by the government.
Fight against ISIL in Fallujah reaps terrible civilian cost
On June 26, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraqi forces had successfully liberated the city of Fallujah from ISIL. The announcement marked the fourth time that Fallujah had violently changed hands since the American invasion Iraq in 2003. In this case, the city, once known as a centre of Sufi Islam, was retaken only after months of US air raids and besiegement by Iraqi ground troops.
Before heavy fighting in the city began this June, an ISIL fighter reached out to the Jordanian religious scholar for advice, saying that members of ISIL had committed “mistakes” in Fallujah, including acts of murder, and had mistreated the local population.
“There is no time to indulge in details. However, if I survive this ordeal I might get into details. But let’s suppose that the mistakes had to do with murder, what should I do? And if it had to do with violations of Islamic law, what should I do so I face God with clean conscience? Would my repentance for these actions be enough for God to forgive me if I am a member of this group?”
During the run-up to the battle, the fighter said that ISIL members debated whether to allow their own family members and other civilians to flee Fallujah. He estimated that the group had only around 800 members prepared to defend Fallujah from the Iraqi Army, whose numbers were known to be far greater.
“We in Fallujah are under siege by the Shia, the [hostile Sunni tribes], and the apostates. We have decided that we should fight to death. Our morale is high, but the city is under siege and no supplies can come in. The enemy – the Iraqi army – is over 30,000 while the Mujahedeen are only 800 and are shrinking as a result of the air strikes. The American air force bombs us even if someone fires a bullet.”
After the battle commenced, American air strikes on the city apparently took a significant toll on the ISIL defenders.
“In just one day, American bombings killed 75 fighters, and on another day they killed and injured over 40,” the man wrote.
Following the Iraqi army’s reclamation of the city in late June, the man lost contact with the religious figure. But he reached out to him again in July, saying that he and other surviving ISIL fighters had fled Fallujah into the surrounding desert:
“The reason I stopped this communication was because our internet service was cut off after the attack on Fallujah. We were fighting for weeks, many people were killed and injured. The battle was won by the Shia. We fled the city towards the desert which was disastrous due to the conditions we faced afterwards. The US bombing took its toll on us, and killed about 200 more of us. We fled into the desert and I am not sure if God was testing us or punishing us. I am now in the Al Bukamal area and the internet service here is not consistent.”
He recounted to the religious scholar the suffering that he and other surviving ISIL members had experienced while fleeing Fallujah:
“First, we suffered great fear because of the American bombings, and thus there was no safe place for us and no place to hide. This took its toll on us. Then we suffered disorientation and confusion, we were lost in this huge desert. Making things worse was the fact that our guide was killed by the air strikes. We stayed 10 days in the desert not knowing where we were going as we were chased by the bombers from the air. We suffered terribly as result of extreme thirst. Many of us died of thirst and I myself almost died of it, if it was not for God’s mercy. It was the most horrific 10 days that I have ever experienced.”
The man told the scholar that many of the other fighters who had managed to flee Fallujah had instructed their families to leave ISIL territory altogether and move to territories controlled by local Sunni tribes, for fear of what would happen if they were captured by Shia militia groups. Meanwhile, in his new location, still under ISIL control, he claims to have witnessed the same abuses that the group had inflicted in Fallujah.
“Some of us reached Mosul, others did not. But the same mistakes that were made in Fallujah are being made here all over again. In that I mean the mistreatment of population, disregard to proper strategies and the spread of injustice. If ever want our situation to change, we should start rethinking of our actions and mistakes and revision should be considered at the highest levels.”
The man’s messages cut off some time after that, with his fate unclear. In one of his last messages he again lamented that the group had lost Fallujah, “because of the injustices we have committed against the people”.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, and has been under the control of ISIL fighters since 2014. The ISIL force that routed the Iraqi Army is believed to have consisted of little more than a thousand fighters, yet it managed to defeat a much larger force over the course of a six-day battle. The unlikely initial success of ISIL in Mosul is believed to be a product of the widespread unpopularity of the Iraqi Army forces that had been stationed in the city. These forces were predominantly Shia, and were alleged to have carried out sectarian abuses against the city’s mostly Sunni local population.
Escaping violence, Iraqi refugees face exploitation and abuse
In a series of messages delivered over the course of the summer, a man currently living in Mosul who reached out to the Jordanian religious scholar described his despair over the future of the city – trapped under the harsh governance of ISIL fighters and facing an assault by potentially vengeful Iraqi government forces.
“I am writing this account because I see our end is near. I live in Mosul, I am a devout Muslim, but not a member of ISIL and I don’t intend to join them anytime soon. I am writing this account to explain our dire situation in this city. Although like many residents of Mosul, we saw the Shia government of Baghdad as a bigger danger and a threat to our lives than ISIL. But as our life conditions deteriorate rather rapidly from bad to worse, some have started thinking of what was unthinkable few years ago: preferring Shia Baghdad’s dangerous rule to ISIL.”
While the man had once welcomed ISIL as possible liberators from the oppressive central government, the brutal treatment meted out by ISIL members to the local population had changed his perception.
“While Mosul is under siege and a war against it is looming in the horizon, the people there have lost trust in everything that comes from ISIL. They even are reluctant to pick up arms to defend the city because of mistreatment and harassment they have been subjected to. We even started hearing those who are saying: it does not matter any more who comes and take over Mosul. [ISIL’s] behaviour and aggression against the residents of Mosul and their capturing and enslaving women from others faiths has turned people away from them….
…People’s morale is down, and I saw that coming, and expected even worse because of how they treated the population and created enemies throughout the region. The situation here is very difficult. I am very confused about the future and often ask myself if we should stay home and await the knives of the Shias when they eventually come to kill us. Should we flee to the desert with our women and children, or keep our families at home and carry arms to defend ourselves?”
In the autumn of 2015, the Iraqi government stopped paying the salaries of public sector workers living in Mosul. While the decision to starve ISIL-controlled areas of funds made tactical sense, it financially left the city’s residents impoverished.
“People are exhausted by poverty; they desperately need money especially after the Shia rulers of Baghdad cut off the salaries more than a year ago,” the man wrote. “Eighty percent of the people here are government employees, so they are directly impacted by cutting their salaries off and face severe problems of trying to feed and take care of their families.”
“Remarkably, while all this is taking place, ISIS couldn’t care less about the people or how they feel or what they are going through. Every Friday during the prayer sermon, their preachers insult the local population and attack them for not going off to Jihad with them and accuse them of being cowards and hypocrites. Their [morality police] is manned by young men and teenagers who insult and attack older and grown men. These young teenagers often issue tickets and fines to elderly men because they for example shaved some of their beards off, even though people barely have money to eat let alone have any to pay imposed fines. They also often yell at women because they slightly showed their faces or eyes from under their veils.”
In the run-up to the government offensive against Mosul, many Iraqis have reportedly made plans to flee the city by paying local smugglers. In his letters, the man says that ISIL refuses to let people flee the city through normal channels, claiming that those who flee territory under its control are apostates from Islam itself. The man said that he had tried to reason with local ISIL officials on behalf of the women, children and foreigners present in Mosul, to no avail.
“I advised some of ISIL men who I knew in the city to let the women and children out of Mosul before the war starts, especially western women – French, Swedish, Danish, British and others because they have no place else to go. Unlike what happened in Fallujah where Iraqi women fled to other Sunni areas in advance of the battle and found shelter in tribal areas. Western women and their children have no such option. I told them they should give them back their passports and have them go to Syria or elsewhere before the war starts, because the Kurds and the Shia are coming for revenge and they will murder and rape those women. But they mocked and threatened me and refused to listen.
What makes me more confused is that Raqqa is part of House of Islam, [under the control of ISIL] so why can’t they allow people to escape there? Furthermore, ISIL allows Syrians to come from Syria to shop and engage in trade in Mosul, but does not allow Iraqis to go to Syria and do the same thing. I, like many other residents of Mosul, find this very troubling.”
In his last messages, the man said that he initially hoped that ISIL would govern Mosul in accordance with his own understanding of Islamic law. But now, he lamented, “what we see here today is everything else but God’s conditions and instructions. We see injustice rule us, we see aggression and murder take place everywhere around us.”
“Under these conditions we live in, I don’t think any of us would have the power or the motivation to fight the Shias when they eventually come to destroy us,” the man wrote. “Our situation is dire and is much bigger than us, we can only ask God for his help and his forgiveness.”
THE U.S. Marine Corps is a storied fighting force, but lately it has done a huge favor to the nation’s enemies. Amid what the Marine Corps itself has condemned as a culture of hazing and abuse at Parris Island, S.C., one of two main training depots for recruits, a widening inquiry is underway involving mistreatment that targeted brand-new Muslim Marines, one of whom wound up dead at the bottom of a barracks stairwell.
It is hard to imagine a greater propaganda gift to Islamist extremists than the incidents now under investigation at Parris Island, which can and will be portrayed as evidence of America’s cruelty and inexorable hostility to Islam. The revelations are also likely to subvert the Marines’ recruitment efforts at home, and not only among young Muslim Americans.
In one instance last year, a drill instructor is accused of badgering a Muslim recruit by calling him a terrorist and ordering him repeatedly into a spinning industrial clothes dryer, leaving him with burns on his neck and arm. In another, involving the same drill instructor, this March, a 20-year-old Muslim recruit, Raheel Siddiqui, valedictorian of his high school in Michigan, jumped 40 feet to his death down a stairwell after he was verbally abused and slapped. He had arrived at Parris Island just 11 days earlier.
The victims in these cases are young Americans who elected voluntarily to serve their country and challenge themselves by entering a military service famed for its patriotism and professionalism. In return for their service, they were hounded, persecuted and treated as pariahs. The alleged abuse violated Marine Corps policies and procedures, yet the chain of command at Parris Island seemed content to look the other way.
These were not isolated episodes involving a rogue drill instructor; as the Marines’ own assessment has shown, they were part of a pattern involving the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, through which tens of thousands of young Marines pass annually.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest talked with reporters at the daily briefing about reports that a Marine drill instructor put a Muslim recruit into an industrial clothes dryer multiple times. The investigative documents have not been made public, but were reviewed by The Washington Post. (The White House)
Marine Corps investigative documents reviewed by The Post’s Dan Lamothe paint a chilling picture. Some drill instructors were drunk on the job; some repeatedly ordered unauthorized training exercises that left recruits injured. Ethnic and homophobic slurs were commonplace.
Twenty officers and senior enlisted Marines are facing administrative discipline or criminal charges; some have already been removed from command,including the colonel in charge of training at Parris Island. Given the extent and severity of the alleged misconduct, there is reason to believe the Marines must go further if they truly want to uproot the rot at Parris Island.
The Marine Corps has done itself a grave disservice. It will need more than cosmetic reforms intended to placate public opinion or congressional scrutiny. The Marines say they have taken immediate steps to enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy on hazing at Parris Island as well as at its West Coast training facility in San Diego, which has not been subject to similar allegations. That’s a good start; it now needs tough implementation and follow-up to regain the prestige it has lost.
As humans, we also often forget that we are not the only ones to experience a period of grief when we lose a loved one. But, animals experience it, too. Hachiko the dog became famous for waiting at the train station for his guardian long after he passed away and other dogs have displayed the same refusal to leave their dearly departed. Loss doesn’t look the same for every animal. For a companion animal, being abandoned at a shelter by their guardian can affect them as badly as losing them forever. That’s what happened to June, the dog in the photo below. On the day that she was left at The Haley Graves Foundation in North Carolina, she had no idea that it would be the last day she ever saw her former guardian — and it shook her.
After June watched her former guardian walk away forever, she was so shaken up that she could hardly function. Too frightened to even look at her new home, this poor pup remained frozen in the corner.
All alone, yet surrounded by the barks of hundreds of other dogs who wanted to be let out, June had no idea where she was or who she could trust.
Not only was June diagnosed as heartworm positive — something that could have easily been prevented, but also she was not microchipped. It was clear to the staff that June’s former guardian had never taken her to the vet.
It’ll be some time before she’s up for adoption, but in the meantime, she’ll be nice and cozy in her new bed.
Looking into her eyes, it’s clear to us that June is no longer the dog who was so frightened that she couldn’t move from the corner. There are humans who love her and it’s thanks to their love that she’s healing in all aspects of her life: body, mind, and soul.
Because she was diagnosed with heartworm, it will be some time before June is available for adoption, but in the meantime, we’re happy to report that she loves to be pampered. According to The Haley Graves Foundation, June had a spa day and loved it and she’s undergoing treatment for her heartworm. June has been microchipped, so once she’s finished with her treatment, this happy girl will be ready to go to her new forever home! It’s amazing how just one week of love and care has completely transformed this pup.
There are about six to eight million like June living in shelters across the United States, if you’re considering welcoming a companion animal into your life, please consider adoption your only option and never shop.
To learn more about The Haley Graves Foundation or to donate to their cause, visit their official website.