High School Science Project

These questions came in in the form of an interview from a science student doing a project on tardigrades:

  • “What exactly are Tardigrades?”
  • “Why did you decide to study them?”
  • “What is your favorite part about Tardigrades?”
  • “How do you think they evolved to this point?”
  • “Why do you think Tardigrades needed to evolve these traits?”
  • “If Tardigrades are seemingly so invincible what is a threat to them?”
  • “Do Tardigrades pose a threat to humans?”
  • By that I mean like could they harm us by say transfering diseases or getting inside our organs and harming them.

My answers here:

What exactly are tardigrades?

Tardigrades are microscopic creatures that are a maximum of one millimeter in size, but usually are found to be about half that size. They have a mouth, an alimentary tract, and they digest food and excrete it like we do.  They have a nervous system and eyes (though primitive).  How do they reproduce?  They lay eggs. In fact, it is sometimes so difficult to identify types of tardigrades that you have to rely upon their odd shaped eggs.  Many of their eggs have points like spikes.

 

Why did you decide to study them?

In the process of using a microscope to help my kids with their science projects, I did a lot of reading and observing of microscopic organisms.  It became great fun to discover some micro creature and look it up to see what it was.  When I came across tardigrades, I found that there had been none observed in New Jersey, not in any scientific paper anyway, so I decided to hunt them, and do a survey of the entire state of New Jersey and document it for science.  When they were sent into space I became known as the Space Bear Hunter.

 

What is your favorite part about tardigrades? 

What I like best is how they look and move. They have a cute cuddly appearance and they move in a lumbering gait like a bear.  They are often referred to as “Water Bears” because they look like chubby little bears with six puffy legs, and they have claws that look like those a grizzly bear would have. Along with their two eyes, some tardigrades are brown in color, and with their hungry mouth, one is reminded of a bear.

 

How do you think they evolved to this point?

They seem to be related to either nematodes (for example: roundworms) or arthropods (such as crabs, water fleas, ostracods, or insects like ticks or mites).    We don’t know how they evolved, but DNA studies are revealing more about that.  We’re still trying to figure out how we evolved.

 

Why do you think tardigrades needed to evolve these traits?

This question implies that evolving is something active that a species does, and it’s misleading.  Evolution happens to the organisms.  In other words, a car doesn’t flat tire, but a flat tire happens to a car.  In the case of tardigrades, those that could survive as their habitat alternated between dry and wet, dry and wet, continued to breed. So the result is a tardigrade that evolved to be able to go into cryptobiosis to survive.  Tardigrades didn’t say – hey – we’ve got a problem with this rapidly changing environmental moisture thing -we need to evolve.  No, most died and those creatures that over millions of years were able to still exist in the dry wet dry wet environments we call,,, tardigrades.

 

If tardigrades are seemingly so invincible what is a threat to them?

Tardigrades can easily be killed when submerged in alcohol or chemical fixatives for biological specimens. generally, however, they are hardy survivors in the natural environment and live out their lifespans normally.  They can live a hundred years by going into cryptobiosis for long periods of time.  A good experiment would be to see how long a tardigrade lives without going into cryptobiosis.

 

Do tardigrades pose a threat to humans?

They pose no threat to humans, and chances are you might have eaten a tardigrade on some vegetables at some point. There are no reported cases of any tardigrade causing harm to humans, livestock, or crops.

 

Could they harm us by transferring diseases or getting inside our organs and harming them?

This question seems to mention a threat such as that of a hookworm or tapeworm.  Tardigrades are not parasites, and therefore pose no threat to our organs or bloodstream. They are probably destroyed by the gastric juices in the stomach long before they get much further in the intestinal tract.  They are way too large to get into the bloodstream, and there is no evidence that they can carry any diseases that might affect us.  A good experiment might be to see if tardigrades can survive the digestive system, but no such experiment has been performed.

Thanks!
Mike

About Mike Shaw

Mike Shaw can be described as a naturalist in the classical sense. His contribution to Science is a by-product of his love for exploring the natural world. Having participated in a chimpanzee rehabilitation project in West Africa, he later travelled to the Amazon to study paper and pulp production as it relates to deforestation. Twice travelling to the observatory at Arecibo, he has done contributing research on their S.E.T.I. project. He is the author of How to Make Rheinberg Filters, for the Hobbyist or Professional, and How To Find Tardigrades. His most recent project has been a comprehensive survey of tardigrade population in the state of New Jersey. His scientific paper was published in October 2013.

Comments

  1. This is really awesome!! Tardigrades are adorable… Keep up the good work, I love it!!

  2. Hi Mike, I’m a high school student and after watching the video featuring your studies on tardigrades, I feel really inspired to work as a naturalist in the future. So may I ask how may one become a naturalist? Do they have to do a PhD? Do they have to join a certain organisation like a university or research institute? How did you begin your career, like where do you get funding for your research in the beginning? Thanks! :D

    • OSJ – Thanks for your questions. The key is to do what you love, and if that pertains to science, then follow the path that interests you. Naturalist is sort of a general term referring to one interested in science, particularly the things in nature. I have a degree in Fine Art, however, that doesn’t disqualify me from doing solid scientific research. Koch and Pasteur were great scientists (not that I’m comparing myself) who had jobs as doctors. Einstein was a patent clerk when he wrote his theory on relativity. Charles Darwin was considered a naturalist in his day, so you don’t need to be certified in any way to be a naturalist. So, not comparing myself, but pointing out that my qualifications for this particular tardigrade task are a passion for science, and the discipline to do the research correctly. Explore nature, and do science fair projects at your school, and if you pursue a college degree in science, you could be a naturalist. I don’t like to label myself a scientist, as my paper has not yet been published, and science is not my main pursuit in life, so the term naturalist – for me – seems more fitting for others to think of me when it comes to tardigrades and my research. Thanks for a really good question. Don’t get hung up on labels for who you are. Do what you love for a career, and everything else will fall into place. Rgds, Mike

  3. Believe it or not, I’m also doing an independent research project on tardigrades through my school. I was looking for experiments to perform with the organisms I collected from moss in the wooded area near my school. Mikes suggestion of doing an experiment testing the tardigrades durability within the digestive system appealed to me, and I have the time and resources for it to happen. Any suggestions as to how the experiment would run would be appreciated, and I’ll be sure to share any results I find

    • Jake – Thanks for your comments. I can’t say I can recommend downing live organisms to see if they survive, and it might be a challenge finding out the results. Although one way to do it would be to have a pet dog or cat eat some tardigrades, and then you could use a standard lab test for worm and parasites to float them to the top of the stool specimen solution. Veterinary supply places could provide the kits. Of course you have the ethical issue of subjecting your pet to this experiment, however, cats do eat birds and mice, so what the heck is wrong with a tardigrade? The litter box is also a handy way to collect specimens. So I wish you luck if you are going to proceed. I recommend you document everything, so you can later report your findings in a scientific way. May I suggest Friskies(R) Classic Pate Salmon Dinner?

  4. I recently completed my testing on tardigrades within a digestive system. I’ll admit I didn’t put them through a pet as you suggested, but instead exposed them to concentrations of 1%, 10% and 100% solutions. The stomach acid was a replicate formed from water and small amounts of hydrochloric acid, table salt and potassium chloride. At the 1% concentration, 3 tardigrades out of 3 survived without cryptobiosis and are still alive after 10 days. The 10% solution produced similar results, all three were alive however their actions were a lot slower and activity did not seem as high. The 10% was literally done right before I wrote this so it’ll need attention over the coming days. The 100% solution I’m sad to say, killed them in a minute or so without any cryptobiosis. I’d like to do some testing to see their tolerance rate because there is a large jump between 10 and 100 percent.

    • Jake – An elegant solution (pardon the pun). Certainly better than eating the tardigrades and looking for the live ones…ahem..later on.

      Great job. Please keep us all posted on your continuing experiments.
      Thanks!
      Mike

  5. marc lawless on March 31, 2013 at 7:41 am said:

    Hi Mike! do you think scientists could use the genes of the tardigrades and modify some other animals ?

    • Marc – Yes. The question is whether or not the new animal will survive. Genes from one species are being transplanted into other species all the time. You can see an example of the problem in the Persian cat. Bred to be cute with a pushed in face, this compresses the tear ducts, so the cat has drippy eyes in the front, and needs constant cleaning by the owner. The cat tears stain the light colored fur. So if you cross species, you might create unforeseen problems. It is unlikely that there is a gene in a tardigrade that would do well in a human and vice versa, because the rest of the organism is so different. A gene is a set of instructions that usually affects more than one thing in an organism. A tardigrade gene for claws might be added to another microorganism to create claws, but it’s not very practical for all the effort it would take. So scientists focus on stuff like adding the gene from a bacteria that creates a poison to caterpillars into the gene for corn. This is called BT Corn. The corn winds up being insect proof and crop yields are bigger. Down side is that harmless butterflies also die in the process when they land on the corn. And people get scared of this genetic corn and stop eating corn, so farmers suffer. So you can add genes, but there are unforeseen risks.

  6. Christian on August 15, 2013 at 5:24 am said:

    Very Interesting. I fell in love with tardigrades and their nature along time ago. I’m currently a High School Student, with the hope to accomplish an independent research project. Any ideas or research questions? I have wanted to test the affects of ultraviolet light on tardigades, but i want to come up with a more complex and interesting research questions. Any advice?

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