Arxiu d'etiquetes: metabolism

Tardigrades: animals with superpowers

The smallest bears in the world have almost superhero abilities. Actually, they are not bears: water bears is the popular name of tardigrades. They are virtually indestructible invertebrates: they can survive decades without water or food, to extreme temperatures and they have even survived into outer space. Meet the animal that seems to come from another planet and learn to observe them in your home if you have a microscope.


Oso de agua (Macrobiotus sapiens) en musgo. Foto coloreada tomada con microscopio electrónico de barrido (SEM): Foto de Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes
Water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes

Tardigrades or water bears, are a group of invertebrates 0.05-1.5 mm long that preferably live in damp places. They are especially abundant in the film of moisture covering mosses and ferns, although there are oceanic and freshwater species, so we can consider they live anywhere in the world. Even a few meters away from you, in the gap between tile and tile. In one gram of moss they have find up to 22,000 individuals. They are found in Antarctica under layers of 5 meters of ice, in warm deserts, hot springs, in mountains 6,000 meters high and abyssal ocean depths: they are  extremophiles. It is estimated that over 1,000 species exist.


Its popular name refers to their appearance, and the scientific name to their slow movements. Their bodies are divided into five segments: cephalic, with its tube-shaped mouth (proboscis) with two internal stilettos and sometimes simple eyes (ommatidia) and sensory hairs, and the remaining 4 segment with a pair of legs per segment. Each leg has claws for anchoring to the ground.

Vista ventral de un tardígrado donde seobservan los cinco segmentos del cuerpo. Foto de Eye Of Science/Photo LIbrary
Bottom view of a Tardigrade where the five segments of the body are observed. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library
Tardigrade. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a freshwater tardigrade or water bear (Echiniscus sp.). Tardigrades, are tiny invertebrates that live in coastal waters and freshwater habitats, as well as semi-aquatic terrestrial habitats like damp moss. They require water to obtain oxygen by gas exchange. In dry conditions, they can enter a cryptobiotic tun (or barrel) state of dessication to survive. Tardigrades feed on plant and animal cells and are found throughout the world, from the tropics to the cold polar waters.
Tardigrade (Echiniscus sp.) In which you can see the claws. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo de Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library

Look at this video of Craig Smith to see tardigrade’s movements in more detail:


With its mouth stilettos, tardigrades perforate plants and absorbe the products of photosynthesis, but they can also feed absorbing the cellular content of other microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, rotifers, nematodes… Some are predators too and can eat whole microorganisms.

Their digestive system is basically the mouth and a pharynx with powerful muscles to make sucking motions that opens directly into the intestine and anus. Some species defecate only when they shed.

Detalle de la boca de un tardígrado. Foto de
Detail of the mouth of a tardigrade. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library


They have no circulatory or respiratory system: gas exchange is made directly by the body surface. They are covered by a rigid cuticle which can be of different colors and is shed as they grow. With each moult, they lose oral stilettos, to be segregated again. They are eutelic animals: to grow they only increase the size of their cells, not their number, that remains constant throughout life


Tardigrades generally have separate sexes (are dioecious) and reproduce by eggs (are oviparous), but there are also hermaphrodites and parthenogenetic species (females reproduce without being fertilized by any male). Fertilization is external and development is direct: they don’t have larval stages.

tardigrade egg, ou tardigrad
Tardigrade egg. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye of Science/Science Photo Library


The tardigrades are incredibly resilient animals that have survived the following conditions:

  • Dehydration: they can survive for 30 years under laboratory conditions without a single drop of water. Some sources claim that resist up to 120 years or have been found in ice 2000 years old and have been able to revive, although it is likely to be an exaggeration.
  • Extreme temperature: if you boil one tardigrade survives. If you put it to temperatures near the absolute zero (-273ºC), survives. Their survival rate ranges from -270ºC to 150ºC.
  • Extreme pressure: they are capable of supporting from vacuum to 6,000 atmospheres, ie 6 times the pressure in the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench (11,000 meters deep).
  • Extreme radiation: tardigrades can withstand bombardment of radiation at a dose 1000 times the lethal to a human.
  • Toxic substances: if they are immersed in ether or pure alcohol, survive.
  • Outer space: tardigrades are the only animals that have survived into space without any protection. In 2007 the ESA (European Space Agency) within the TARDIS project (Tardigrades In Space) left tardigrades (Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum) for 12 days on the surface of the Foton-M3 spacecraft and they survived the space travel. In 2011 NASA did the same placing them in the outside of the space shuttle Endeavour and the results were corroborated. They survived vacuum, cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation 1,000 times higher than that of the Earth’s surface. The project Biokis (2011) of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) studied the impact of these trips at the molecular level.


The tardigrades are able to withstand such extreme conditions because they enter cryptobiosis status when conditions are unfavorable. It is an extreme state of anabiosis (decreased metabolism). According to the conditions they endure, the cryptobiosis is classified as:

  • Anhydrobiosis: in case of environmental dehydration, they enter a “barrel status” because adopt barrel shaping to reduce its surface and wrap in a layer of wax to prevent water loss through transpiration. To prevent cell death they synthesize trehalose, a sugar substitute for water, so body structure and cell membranes remain intact. They reduce the water content of their body to just 1% and then stop their metabolism almost completely (0.01% below normal).

    Tardígrado deshidratado. Foto de Photo Science Library
    Tardigrade dehydrated. Photo by Photo Science Library
  • Cryobiosis: in low temperatures, the water of living beings crystallizes, it breaks the structure of cells and the living being die. Tardigrades use proteins to suddenly freeze water cells as small crystals, so they can avoid breakage.
  • Osmobiosis: it occurs in case of increase of the salt concentration of the environment.
  • Anoxybiosis: in the absence of oxygen, they enter a state of inactivity in which leave their body fully stretched, so they need water to stay perky.

Referring to exposures to radiation, which would destroy the DNA, it has been observed that tardigrades are able to repair the damaged genetic material.

These techniques have already been imitated in fields such as medicine, preserving rat hearts to “revive” them later, and open other fields of living tissue preservation and transplantation. They also open new fields in space exploration for extraterrestrial life (Astrobiology) and even in the human exploration of space to withstand long interplanetary travel, ideas for now, closer to science fiction than reality.


The sparse fossil record, the unclear evolutionary relatedness and great resistance, led to hypothesis speculating with the possibility that tardigrades have come from outer space. It is not a crazy idea, but highly unlikely. Panspermia is the hypothesis that life, or rather, complex organic molecules, did not originate on Earth, but travelled within meteorites in the early Solar System. Indeed, amino acids (essential molecules for life) have been found in meteorites composition, so panspermia is a hypothesis that can not be ruled out yet.

Foto de Eye Of Science/Photolife Library
Photo by Eye Of Science/Photolife Library

But it is not the case of tardigrades: their DNA is the same as the rest of terrestrial life forms and recent phylogenetic studies relate them to onychophorans (worm-like animals), aschelminthes and arthropods. What is fascinating is that is the animal with more foreign DNA: up to 16% of its genome belongs to fungi, bacteria or archaea, obtained by a process called horizontal gene transfer. The presence of foreign genes in other animal species is usually not more than 1%. Could be this fact what has enabled them to develop this great resistance?


Being so common and potentially livIng almost anywhere, if you have a simple microscope,  you can search and view living tardigrades by yourself:

    • Grab a piece of moss of a rock or wall, it is better if it is a little dry.
    • Let it dry in the sun and clean it of dirt and other large debris.
    • Put it upside down in a transparent container (such as a petri dish),  soak it with water and wait a few hours.
    • Remove moss and look for tardigrades in the water container (put it on a black background for easier viewing). If lucky, with a magnifying glass you’ll see them moving.
    • Take them with a pipette or dropper, place them on the slide and enjoy! You could see things like this:



The plants and the climate change

Since a few years ago, we have heard about the climate change. Nowadays, it is already evident and also a concern. This not only affects to us, the humans, but to all kind of life. It has been talked enough about the global warming, but perhaps, what happens to the vegetation has not been much diffused. There are many things affected by climate change and vegetation is also one of them. In addition, the changes in this also affect us. But, what are these changes? how can the vegetation regulate them? And how we can help to mitigate them through plants?


Biomes distribution

In general, due to climate change, an increase of precipitations in some parts of the world are expected, while in others a decrease is awaited. A global temperature increment is also denoted. This leads to an alteration in the location of the biomes, large units of vegetation (e.g.: savannas, tropical forests, tundras, etc.).

Biome triangle classified by latitude, altitude and humidity (Author: Peter Halasaz).

On the other hand, there is an upward trend in the distribution of species in the high latitudes and a detriment in the lower latitudes. This has serious associated problems; the change in the species distribution affects their conservation and genetic diversity. Consequently, the marginal populations in lower latitudes, which have been considered very important for the long-term conservation of genetic diversity and due their evolutionary potential, are threatened by this diversity loss. And conversely, the populations in high latitudes would be affected by the arrival of other competing species that could displace those already present, being as invasive.

Species distribution

Within the scenario of climate change, species have some ability to adjust their distribution and to adapt to this.

But, what type of species may be responding more quickly to this change? It appears that those with a faster life cycle and a higher dispersion capacity will be showing more adaptability and a better response. This could lead to a loss of some plants with slower rates.

Galactites tomentosa
The Purple milk Thistle (Galactites tomentosa) is a plant with a fast life cycle and high distribution capacity  (Author: Ghislain118).

One factor that facilitates adjustment in the distribution is the presence of wildlife corridors: these are parts of the geographical area that enable connectivity and movement of species from one population to another. They are important because they prevent that some species can remain isolated and because they can also allow the movement to new regions.

Another factor is the altitudinal gradient, which provides shelter for many species, facilitates the presence of wildlife corridors and permits redistribution of species along altitude. Therefore, in those territories where there is greater altitudinal range, the conservation is favored.

In short, the ability of species to cope with climate change depends on the plant characteristics and the territory attributes. And, conversely, the species vulnerability to climate change occurs when the speed to displace their distribution or adapt their lives is less than the climate change velocity.

At internal level

Climate change also affects the plant as an organism, as it causes changes in their metabolism and phenology (periodic or seasonal rhythms of the plant).

One of the effects that pushes the climate change is the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration increase in the atmosphere. This could produce a fertilization phenomenon of vegetation. Due the COincrease in the atmosphere it also increases the uptake by plants, thus increasing the photosynthesis and allowing greater assimilation. But, this is not all advantages, because for this an important water loss occurs due that the stomata (structures that allow gas exchange and transpiration) remain open long time to incorporate CO2. So, there are opposing effects and fertilization will depend on the plant itself, but the local climate will also determine this process. Many studies have shown that various plants react differently to the COincrease, since the compound affects various physiological processes and therefore there are not unique responses. Then, we find a factor that alters the plant metabolism and we cannot predict what will be the effects. Furthermore, this fertilizer effect is limited by the nutrients amount and without them production slows.

Photosynthesis process (Author: At09kg).

On the other hand, we must not forget that climate change also alters the weather and that this affects the vegetation growth and its phenology. This can have even an impact on a global scale; for example, could produce an imbalance in the production of cultivated plants for food.


Although one cannot speak of plants as regulators of global climate, it is clear that there is a relationship between climate and vegetation. However, this relationship is somewhat complicated because the vegetation has both effects of cooling and heating the weather.

The vegetation decreases the albedo; dark colours absorb more solar radiation and, in consequence, less sunlight is reflected outward. And besides, as the plants surface is usually rough, the absorption is increased. Consequently, if there is more vegetation, local temperature (transmitted heat) intensifies.

But, on the other hand, by increasing vegetation there is more evapotranspiration (set of water evaporation from a surface and transpiration through the plant). So, the heat is spent on passing the liquid water to gas, leading to a cooling effect. In addition, evapotranspiration also helps increase local rainfall.

Biophysical effects of landcover
Biophysical effects of different land uses and its consequences on the local climate. (From Jackson et al. 2008. Environmental Research Letters.3: article 0440066).

Therefore, it is an ambiguous process and in certain environments the cooling effect outweighs, while in others the heating effect has more relevance.


Nowadays, there are several proposals to reduce climate change, but, in which way can the plants cooperate?

Plant communities can act as a sinks, carbon reservoirs, because through CO2 assimilation, they help to offset carbon emissions. Proper management of agricultural and forest ecosystems can stimulate capture and storage of carbon. On the other hand, if deforestation were reduced and protection of natural habitats and forests increased, emissions would be diminished and this would stimulate the sink effect. Still, there is a risk that these carbon sinks may become emission sources; for example, due to fire.

Finally, we must introduce biofuels: these, unlike fossil fuels (e.g. petroleum), are renewable resources, since they are cultivated plants for use as fuels. Although they fail to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or reduce carbon emissions, they get to avoid this increase in the atmosphere. For this reason, they may not become a strict mitigation measure, but they can keep neutral balance of uptake and release. The problem is that they can lead to side effects on social and environmental level, such as increased prices for other crops or stimulate deforestation to establish these biofuel crops, what should not happen.

Sugarcane crop (Saccharum officinarum) in Brazil to produce biofuel (Author: Mariordo).




Communication among plants: allelopathy

As always have been said, plants are unable to speak. But, even if they don’t speak, this does not mean they do not communicate with each other. Relatively few years ago, during the period from 1930 to 1940, it was discovered that plants also transmit certain stimuli to others. But, what kind of communication exist among them? What are their words and how are pronounced? And what involves this interaction?


In 1937, Molisch introduced the term allelopathy referring to the two Latin words “Allelon” and “Pathos”, which mean “another” and “suffering”, respectively. But, the actual meaning of the word was determined by Rice in 1984. Allelopathy now means any effect that a plant transmits to another directly or indirectly through production of different metabolism compounds, causing either a positive or negative effect on the other organism. These compounds are called allelochemicals.

The allelochemicals are released on the environment by plants. But, they are not directly aimed to the action site, thus it is a passive mechanism. To be effective, allelopathic interaction needs that these substances are distributed along the ground or the air and that they reach the other plant. Once inside the recipient plant, this one may have defense and degradation mechanisms of the compounds while avoiding the effect, or conversely, it will suffer a pathological effect.

Allelopathy (Adapted image of OpenClips)


The release of allelochemicals can be 4 main ways:

  • Leaching: the aerial part of the plant lets go substances by rain effect. Then, they can fall on other plants or on the ground. Therefore, it can be direct or indirect effect, depending on whether they falls on another plant or not. Although, in principle, it is considered indirect.
  • Decomposition: the plants drop their leftovers on the ground, where they decomposed under the microorganisms action, which help the release of the compounds. The plant leftovers range from leaves to branches or roots. The substances found there may be inactive until coming into contact with moisture or microorganisms, or can be active and then be inactivated by the microorganisms activity or by being retained on the ground. So, it is an indirect way. The decomposition is very important because the most of allelochemicals are released this way.
  • Volatilization: the substances are released by the stomata (structures that allow the exchange of gas and transpiration). These are volatile and water-soluble, thus can be absorbed by other plant’s stomata or be dissolved in water. Commonly, plants using these pathways occur in temperate and warm climates. It is considered a direct route.
  • Exudation: the plants can also release allelochemicals directly by live roots. The exudation system depends especially of roots state, of the kind of roots and of their growing level (if they are growing or not).
The 4 main pathways of allelochemical releasing: volatilization (V), leaching (L), descomposition (D) and root exudation (E). (Adapted image of OpenClips)


Factors influencing the release of allelochemicals are normally abiotic, such as high radiation, low humidity, unsuitable pH, ultraviolet light, temperature, nutrient deficiency, pollution or contamination (including pesticides ). The higher is the stress caused by this factors to the plant, highest is the allelochemicals amount released from secondary metabolic routes.

  • This is important for research and pharmacy: for generating relevant oils many plants are grown under stressful conditions, as it is thanks to the production of these secondary metabolites that they can survive.

Furthermore, biotic factors also take part, such as insects, herbivores or competition with other plant species. These activate the plant defenses and then the organism is stimulated to secrete bitter substances, or substances that harden the tissues, that are toxic or give off unpleasant odors, etc.

Finally, each plant has its own genome and this makes synthesize those or other substances. But, they are also determined by the phenology (life stages) and the development (if the size of the plant is bigger, it can release more allelochemicals).


The allelochemicals are very diverse and, therefore, it’s difficult to establish a general action model; since it depends on the compound type, the receiving plants and how it acts.

When we talk about how the allelochemicals can act at internal level, there is a large number of physiological parameters that can be affected. They have action on the cellular membrane, disrupt the activity of different enzymes or structural proteins or alter hormonal balance. They can also inhibit or reduce cellular respiration and chlorophyll synthesis, leading to a reduction in vitality, growth and overall development of the plant. Furthermore, these substances can also reduce seed germination or seedling development, or affect cell division, pollen germination, etc.

On the other hand, at external level, the allelochemicals may be related to the release or limitation of nutrients that are found in the soil. Others act on microorganisms, leading to a perturbation on the symbiotic relationships they establish. In addition, these substances have great importance into the generations succession, as they determine certain competition tendencies and also act on the habitat ecology. Even so, it is a successive competition, as they do not directly compete to obtain the main resources.


One of the best known allelochemicals is the juglone, produced by the Eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra). Juglone, once released to soil, can inhibit the other plants growth around the tree. This allows the issuing organism to get more resources, avoiding competition.

black walnut
Eastern black walnut  (Juglans nigra) (Photo taken by Hans Braxmeier)

A very curious case is that of the acacias (Acacia). These plants synthesize a toxic alkaloid that migrates to the leaves when the body is attacked by a herbivore. This substance’s toxicity is high, because it damages with the contact and ingestion, becoming deadly even for large herbivores.In addition, this alkaloid is volatile and transferred by air to other nearby acacias, acting as an alarm. When the other acacias receive this signal, this component is segregated to leaves, making them darker. Even so, the effect is temporary. This makes animals like giraffes have to constantly move to eat a few leaves of each acacia, and always against the wind, to avoid toxicity.

Acacias (Acacia) (Photo taken by Sarangib)



  • A. Aguilella & F. Puche. 2004. Diccionari de botànica. Col·leció Educació. Material. Universitat de València: pp. 500.
  • A. Macías, D. Marín, A. Oliveros-Bastidas, R.M. Varela, A.M. Simonet, C. Carrera & J.M.G. Molinillo. 2003. Alelopathy as a new strategy for sustainable ecosystems development. Biological Sciences in Space 17 (1).
  • J. Ferguson, B. Rathinasabapathi & C. A. Chase. 2013. Allelopathy: How plants suppresss other plants. University of Florida, IFAS Extension HS944
  • Notes of Phanerogamae, Applied Plant Physiology and Analisi of vegetation, Degree of Environmental Biology, UAB