Microscopic Superheroes to Help Protect Astronaut Health in Space


Jun 3, 2021

It’s a classic superhero tale: Inconspicuous, underestimated, our hero is revealed to have powers beyond imagination! The hottest and coldest environments on Earth, decades without water, the powerful radiation of space – none of it is any match for…the tardigrade!

This chubby, microscopic, eight-legged animal may be an unlikely hero, but tardigrades, also known as water bears due to their shape under a microscope, possess superpowers when it comes to surviving really harsh conditions. Understanding how they tolerate extreme environments – including the one astronauts experience in space, with microgravity and elevated radiation levels – can better guide research into protecting humans from the stresses of long-duration space travel. An experiment starting aboard the International Space Station, called Cell Science-04, will help reveal how tardigrades do it.

“We want to see what ‘tricks’ they use to survive when they arrive in space, and, over time, what tricks their offspring are using,” said Thomas Boothby, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and principal investigator of the experiment. “Are they the same or do they change across generations? We just don’t know what to expect.”

Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center

One option in the tardigrade bag of tricks could be producing tons more antioxidants to combat harmful changes in the body caused by increased radiation exposure in space.

“We have seen them do this in response to radiation on Earth,” said Boothby, “and we think the ways tardigrades have evolved to withstand extreme environments on this planet may also be what protects them against the stresses of spaceflight.”

The research team will look at what happens with tardigrade genes in space. Knowing which ones are turned on or off in response to short-term and long-term spaceflight will help researchers identify specific ways tardigrades use to survive in this stressful environment. If one solution they have is to turn up the dial on antioxidant production, for example, genes involved in that process should be affected.

Checking which genes are also activated or deactivated by other stresses will help pinpoint the genes that respond exclusively to spaceflight. Cell Science-04 will then test which are truly required for tardigrade adaptation and survival in this high-stress environment.

Data from the space station experiment will also offer a comparison for Earth-based research. The latter is more common and less costly, and uses simulated spaceflight conditions to study tardigrade responses. The current experiment will tell researchers how similar those conditions are to actual spaceflight.

The tiny heroes of Cell Science-04 won’t be the first spacefaring tardigrades to join an astronaut crew. They have already been shown to survive even the vacuum of space when exposed outside the space station for an experiment. This time, they’ll be on board living and reproducing inside special science hardware developed for the station by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, which also manages the mission. Called the Bioculture System, the hardware lets scientists carry out long-term studies of cultures of cells, tissues, and microscopic animals in space by allowing real-time, remote monitoring, and finer control over the conditions in which they grow.

In the long run, revealing what makes tardigrades so tolerant could lead to ways of protecting biological material, such as food and medicine from extreme temperatures, drying out, and radiation exposure, which will be invaluable for long-duration, deep-space exploration missions. That’s superhero-size potential for the teeny tardigrade.

Dr. Boothby’s research is supported by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division.

For news media:
Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should reach out to the NASA Ames newsroom.

Author: Abby Tabor, NASA’s Ames Research CenterLast Updated: Jun 4, 2021Editor: Abigail Tabor

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Joseph Zorzin
June 7, 2021 4:02 am

adorable little critters!

Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
June 7, 2021 4:55 am

Based on the first four letters of their name, these mostly vegetarians, aptly represent the Left, whose bad ideas survive regardless of superior argumentation against them.

June 7, 2021 5:00 am

Star Trek was there first.

Mark - Helsinki
Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
June 7, 2021 6:02 am

If you mean Discovery, they just stole the idea from a game developer.

June 7, 2021 5:28 am

what makes tardigrades so tolerant 

Could teach Mann, Oreskes, Lewandowski, Cook, Scooter and all the team an awful lot.

Reply to  fretslider
June 7, 2021 8:02 am

You couldn’t teach those clowns anything unless, of course, the use of a baseball bat became legal in teaching.

This, though, did make me think of the idiot that is Mann:

“It’s a classic superhero tale: Inconspicuous, underestimated, our hero is revealed to have powers beyond imagination!” 

June 7, 2021 7:02 am

So who will be first with the astronaut miniaturization program?

Reply to  ResourceGuy
June 7, 2021 7:08 am

Rick and Morty

Reply to  ResourceGuy
June 7, 2021 7:58 am

Ha yes, Ray Kurzweil needs to get that Singularity thing sorted out

Rud Istvan
June 7, 2021 8:58 am

The NASA PR is as usual deceptive. It is true that tardigrades as a genus are remarkable resilient. But it is not true that resilience is all rolled up in one. There are about 1300 known species. Each has evolved resilience to its own environment (hot, cold, wet, dry, high altitude, low altitude… Put one resilient species into a different environment and it is not resilient.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Rud Istvan
June 7, 2021 9:36 am

That’s something I didn’t know.

Tom Abbott
June 7, 2021 9:38 am

I see where Jeff Bezos is going to fly into space on his own rocket ship in the near future. I wonder if he will take any tardigrades with him?

Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 7, 2021 12:52 pm

I guess after Elon Musk told him he couldn’t get it up (to orbit) now he has to prove to everyone that Blue Origin is still a competitor for the private space sector. Haven’t heard much about the success rate of BO, but he is auctioning the third seat on his New Shepard for a trip to space with his brother, Mark Bezos on July 20th. The bid is currently $3,200,000. I think they just go straight up 60 miles or so, and then come right back down 10 minutes later. Sort of like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. But good luck to Jeff Bezos and all the rest…Elon can use some competition, just to keep him honest. I have SpaceX Starlink internet out in the middle of nowhere, and seems just as fast as my 1 GB fibre broadband in town at the condo. Incredible.


Last edited 1 year ago by Earthling2
Tom Abbott
Reply to  Earthling2
June 8, 2021 6:07 am

“I have SpaceX Starlink internet out in the middle of nowhere, and seems just as fast as my 1 GB fibre broadband in town at the condo. Incredible.”

One thing about the way Starlink is configured and launched, which is to launch a lot of small satellites at the same time, might be applicable to U.S. national security.

No doubt, in an all-out war, U.S. satellites would be knocked out by our enemies, but if we can launch new ones faster than they can knock them out, then we would be ahead of the game. Seems like I saw something the other day about the DOD being interested in Musk’s new heavy-lift vehicle.

June 7, 2021 10:19 am

How many were in the cargo list of the Chinese lander?

June 7, 2021 12:10 pm

Is this what the movie flashback to the start of humanity’s domination by a creature brought back from space will look like? I think have already seen a HollyWeird release about The Thing that can’t be contained inside a secure lab – probably even a Wuhan laboratory might not do in a real case.

June 7, 2021 8:33 pm

Do they make good pets?

Reply to  Jones
June 8, 2021 2:57 pm


and easier to care for than Sea Monkeys. The Bears can fend for themselves and may re-animate if you forget about them for a few months.

Reply to  DonM
June 8, 2021 3:32 pm

Thank you kindly for the advice. I shall go out and buy a few thousand then.

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