Achieving Suspended Animation, With Help From the Water Bear
Humans can’t live in a world without water. It’s one of the first things we look for in the search for other Earth-like planets. But there are some organisms that aren’t constrained by a need for H20, like the tardigrade, or water bear. When there’s no water around, this micro-animal can enter a type of cryptobiosis, or state of very low metabolic activity, in which it’s preserved in a desiccated “tun” form—sometimes for years—until water is reintroduced.
That peculiar trait captured the interest of John Crowe, a young researcher who in the late 1970s set out to discover how tardigrades persisted for so long in a waterless environment. As a graduate student, Crowe found that the answer lay in trehalos, a sugar that takes the place of water during cryptobiosis to maintain the structure of the cell membranes.
Even though humans aren’t capable of cryptobiosis on their own, the world of modern medicine has taken a page of out the tardigrade playbook. Scientists have discovered a number of real-world applications for trehalos, most notably in preserving vaccines and platelets that can be sent across the globe and reanimated with a drop of water.
Crowe, now a professor of molecular and cellular biology emeritus at UC Davis, is joined by Fresno City College biology professor Carl Johansson in this live interview from the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis. They join Ira to discuss how curiosity can lead to inspiration, and why cryptobiosis isn’t as easy as it looks.
Special thanks to our musical guests Joe Kye and Brian Chris Rogers.
John Crowe is a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Emeritus at the University of California, Davis in Davis, California.
Carl Johansson is a professor of Biology at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.