Feed drop time! We’re on a break from the show as we prepare for v5 of SquadCast and work on revamping the SquadCast podcast. So, we’re bringing you carefully curated feed drops from some of our favorite SquadCasters.

This week, we’re spotlighting the work of Leah Jackson, who’s been a SquadPodder for a few months. SquadPod is what we call the SquadCast community on Slack. (Join us here). Leah is the founder of Puka Puka Creative and they just launched a new show, Tardigrades To Save Planet Earth. So, in this episode of our podcast, we’re bringing you the first episode of Leah and NATRC’s new show.

Here’s what the episode is about

Look, up in the sky it’s a bird, a plane. No! It’s a micro-animal that’s going to save planet Earth! Tardigrades…or water bears…or moss piglets as they’re also called are micro-animals that are extremophiles and bio-indicative species. Their unique superpowers are unlike any other animal on the planet. Amy H. Helfer, the founder of the North America Tardigrade Research Consortium (NATRC) takes you on a sonic ride to find out how these subjectively cute creatures have the power to save our planet. In this episode we have an all-female cast of scientists, journalists, and #tardigradestans; Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer at LiveScience, Brooke Shepard, and Sonali Verma, former and current Research Associates at NASA Ames sharing their stories of feverishly researching them and fascinating fun facts.

Here’s the description of the podcast

Welcome to the home of the North America Tardigrade Research Consortium – the NATRC for short. We’re a non-profit research organization focused on bringing awareness and research to one of the most fascinating animals on planet Earth, tardigrades. The co-founder of the NATRC, Amy Hauser hosts an audio journey exploring these incredible micro-animals, finding out what makes them so fascinating from a scientific perspective, plus unveiling their secrets to sustainable life. We believe that encouraging people to learn about tardigrades and their contribution to the Earth’s ecosystem is a powerful investment that can stoke scientific awareness and participation for people of all ages from around the world. Join the NATRC community on LinkedIn and visit our home base.

Why we chose this episode

We’re still celebrating Earth week! And we’re so excited to show off the unique content that’s created on SquadCast.

Also in this episode


  • Written and produced by Arielle Nissenblatt
  • Mixed and designed by Vince Moreno Jr.
  • Artwork and logos by Alex Whedbee
  • Hosted by Zach Moreno and Rock Felder

Episode Transcriptions

MARIANNE SCIUCCO: Hello podcast listener. If you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you don’t want to miss AlzAuthors podcast, untangling Alzheimer’s and dementia. I’m your host, Marianne Sciucco, a registered nurse, author, and dementia daughter. In each episode, I interview one of our 300 plus authors about their personal dementia story and why they chose to write about it. Sharing intimate details from gainfully obtained knowledge to help you on your own journey. We share a variety of stories across all diagnoses and from a range of caregiving experiences. You can find us on your favorite podcast platform and The Whole Care Network. Remember, you are not alone. One can sing a lonely song, but we chose to form a choir and create harmony. Find us at alzauthors.com. See you soon.


ZACHARIAH MORENO: Hey, Between Two Micers. Zach and Rock here. And welcome to the show. 

ROCKWELL FELDER: We’re currently on a break from the podcast, but while we’re away, we’re still dropping episodes from some of our favorite shows.

ZACH: In a moment, we’ll hit play on one of those feed drops. We chose these podcast drops very carefully, and we hope you’ll stay tuned to enjoy them.

ROCK: If you’d like what you hear, please make sure to search for their podcasts and subscribe. 

ZACH: While we’re away from Between Two Mics, we’re working on getting v5 of Squadcast ready for all of you. We’re also working on revamping this podcast. If you have any suggestions or ideas, we’re very available on social media, just search for Squadcast FM on all platforms.

ROCK: Thanks for tuning in and being a part of the Squadcast story. Enjoy this feed drop.

Hey there. Welcome to another episode, Rock here, and glad to have you with us. We’re so excited to bring you a different kind of feed drop this episode. For this episode, we feature Leah Jackson, who’s been a member of the Squadpod for a few months. Now, Leah is the founder of Puka Puka Creative, and she and her team recently launched a new podcast, and it’s called Tardigrades To Save Planet Earth!. For the past few months, we’ve been sharing interviews about the podcast space, marketing, and SEO, but this week it’s all about Planet Earth. And why might you ask? Well, for one, we celebrated Earth Week, last week, and because we want to show off the amazing kind of content that all of our community is creating on Squadcast. So what’s a tardigrade? I honestly didn’t know either. So don’t worry. They’re known as water bears or moss piglets. We’ll share some images of them on social media, because they’re actually pretty cute. They’re a phylum of eight legged segmented micro animals. And did you know that they may have the ability to save the Earth? That’s what this show is all about. And in the episode, you’re about to hear, you’ll learn why. So let’s get to this week’s feed drop from Leah Jackson and her team at Tardigrades To Save Planet Earth!.


AMY: Hi, I’m Amy Hauser, and welcome to the podcast dedicated to one of the most fascinating animals on Planet Earth. In this episode, you’re going to learn all about how microscopic animals called tardigrades are helping to save Planet Earth. Maybe you already know what a tardigrade is, or maybe you don’t. Either way. We’re going to take you on a ride to find out from scientists, researchers, journalists, and tardigrade enthusiasts how these subjectively cute things have the power to save our planet. But first, let me tell you who I am and then you’ll learn all about what a tardigrade is. I am a total tardigrade fan girl. I’m the co-founder of the North American Tardigrade Research Consortium, or the N A T R C for short. I helped to found the NATRC in 2018 because of my unearthly fascination with these microscopic animals. I even helped bring a payload of tardigrades to space. More about that later on in the episode. But let me tell you what a tardigrade is. Tardigrades or moss piglets, or water bears, as they’re also called, are microscopic animals that look like a cross between a pig and a bear, but they have eight legs. [sound effect] They have a super puffy body and their face is mostly filled by their mouth. Think of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man, with a huge mouth. Tardigrades live in the most diverse environments. [underwater sound] They’re aquatic animals, and you can find them wherever moss grows. But interestingly enough, they also can live in sand dunes. [sound of sand] Soil. Ice. Even in thermal geysers. [sound effect] They have the ability to live in the most extreme temperatures AKA they’re extremophiles. [sound effect] They can go from sub zero temperatures of -458 degrees Fahrenheit to 304 degrees Fahrenheit. These things are super, super cool and beyond all the scientific reasons that make them so fascinating. They’re also a global pop culture phenomenon. There are numerous Ted Talks about them, hundreds of tardigrade products on Etsy, I’m even wearing a tardigrade t-shirt right now. [music plays] There’s also a song dedicated to tardigrades by Cosmo Sheldrake, a musician, composer, and producer from London. He posted the tardigrade song on YouTube in 2015, and it now has over 2 million views. Doesn’t this song make you want to drink whiskey in an old tavern with a bunch of sailors? Well, it definitely makes me want to. Do me a favor, like the video on YouTube and read the comments. They are just as entertaining as the song. By now you know that tardigrades are really cool, but what makes them so fascinating from a science perspective? What secrets to these tiny creatures hold to sustainable life? With Earth’s temperatures rising year by year, humans may not survive thousands of years from now, but I’m placing my Vegas bets that tardigrades will. I chat with three hashtag tardigrade stans, Brooke Shepard and Sonali Varma, former and current research associates at NASA. Plus Mindy Weisberger, a senior writer at Live Science. They all share what makes tardigrades so fascinating and how they’re going to save Planet Earth.

AMY: Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science, a groundbreaking news platform and life sciences. Mindy covers a range of science topics, including climate change, archeology, paleontology, black holes, artificial intelligence, and weird animal behavior. Tardigrades being one of those weird animals. Her career trajectory took her from majoring in film to producing, writing, and directing media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to becoming a journalist. What did the microbiology student get for being late to class?

MINDY WEISBERGER: This is a, this is a very scientific question. I don’t know. What did the student get for being late to class? 

AMY: A tardigrade.

MINDY: If I had drums here, I actually, my husband is a drummer. There is a drum set in the other room. I can run into the other room and do the cymbal crash right now. 

AMY: Yes, please do. Because I’m still working out my delivery. 

MINDY: Or maybe the sad, maybe the sad trombone would be the more appropriate thing. Womp womp womp. 

AMY: Why are tardigrades so fascinating? 

MINDY: How are they not fascinating? I know we love, tardigrades at Live Science. They’re well, they’re just, they’re just amazing because they’re near microscopic, but most microscopic,  near microscopic animals. They kind of look like blobs, but tardigrades, they have these, they have these pudgy little bodies, they have these pudgy little legs and they move in this way that makes it look like they’re walking. So there’s something extra endearing about them and, you know, and of course they’ve got the face with, you know, like the big, you know, the big, the big feeding ring in the front. And so there’s, they’re just adorable. So I, so when they were first, when they were first discovered in the 18th century, I think that was when they were, they were the person who discovered them also referred to them as water bears, because there was something, you know, because they were so punchy and adorable and there was something kind of, you know, they had this lumbering walk that was, that was kind of bearlike. There’s just something about them that is cute. And I mean, I, I, like, I think a lot of animals are cute that most people don’t, but tardigrades, I, I, you know, I don’t think, I don’t think anyone would disagree with me on that. They’re just objectively adorable. 

AMY: Yeah, they really are. So how, and when were you first introduced to tardigrades?

MINDY: I have to think about that. What was my, what was, what was my first tardigrade? I think that I probably saw a model of a tardigrade for an exhibit at The Museum of Natural History. And might’ve been an exhibit on, on extremophiles, which are, which are animals that live under, what do you know, most normal animals would consider some fairly extreme conditions. And tardigrades are super extreme so they can survive conditions where water is boiling hot. They can survive deep freezes, they can survive extreme pressure. They could survive the radiation of space. So they’re pretty hardcore. And so, so I think the, the, and I think that my first introduction to tardigrades was actually seeing, seeing a model that was obviously like many, many, many times larger than, than life size. Because it was a model that it was probably at least the size of a, you know, a cat, maybe bigger. And I was, I, and I was just like, oh, who’s, who’s this little guy. And thinking about tardigrades is the more you, the more you find out about, the just the weirder they get. And so it’s a, it’s a never-ending tardigrades are just the never ending rabbit hole. And you can find them almost everywhere. That’s the other thing is that they’re extremophiles and there are these. Like hardcore little animals that can survive all these extreme conditions, but they’re also pretty much everywhere on earth where there’s liquid water. So you can go out into your backyard, find a tree with some moss on it, scrape some of that moss off, look at an under a microscope and you will probably see a tardigrade. Yeah. So, so just like a, you know, on the one hand, super extreme on the other hand, super available and easy to find. So, and something about that is just, you know, is just fantastic.

AMY: Yeah, no, I definitely agree. I can, I can tell that aside from being cute, your interest in tardigrades was peaked just by like, like you said, the unending rabbit hole of different, different things you can learn about tardigrades. And one of the things I’ve learned is that some of them are cute, but there are some ones that aren’t that cute. The predatory ones.

MINDY: Oh, I think they’re all cute. 

AMY: Well, you did say you thought some animals were cute, that other people do not think are cute. So…

MINDY: There is a, there is this, yes, there, there is this never-ending conversation that goes on at Live Science where, you know, like every few weeks I’ll, you know, I’ll share a photo of, of, you know, some species of spiders or bats and, and that’s, there’s not, there is not a consensus on… Believe it or not, there isn’t a consensus that the, that these animals are objectively adorable too. Which they are obviously, but tardigrades yes. I mean, there, there are many types of tardigrades. I think there are, there are over a thousand or something like 1300 species of tardigrades that we know about today. And some of them do eat other tardigrades, which sounds a little horrifying, but they’re still thinking they’re still cute. So, you know, so they’re just a little, they’re their teeth, or, you know, like they, they have more teeth or they have sharper claws on their, on their chubby feet, but they’re still adorable.

AMY: Well in your article “Facts about tardigrades” published in Live Science. You talk about how tardigrades could potentially outlive humans in a catastrophic event on Earth. How would you see tardigrades surviving that?

MINDY: Well, because tardigrades are-because tardigrades are adapted to, to survive in extreme environments. What they do is they essentially, they can, they can expel all the moisture from their bodies, and they enter a state called a tun state. And so it’s like a kind of suspended animation. And then, and then they can revive from that and, and scientists have tested, have tested tardigrade revival and have been able to revive them in some cases, target grades that have been in a tun state for, for years. So given the fact that tardigrades are already capable of surviving extreme conditions and extreme environments on Earth. Potential environmental disasters that could create much more widespread, extreme conditions. That could be something that humans might not be able to survive, but tardigrades could. So depending, you know, depending on what the specific circumstances are, there are absolutely scenarios where, the where Earth could become inhospitable to many forms of life, but some forms of life, like tardigrades, that already had this adaptation for weathering these kind of conditions might be able to survive that.

AMY: So then in your opinion, how do you see tardigrades saving Planet Earth?

MINDY: Well, I don’t know that tardigrades are necessarily going to form form a society and a civilization that is then going to rebuild from the ashes. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But could, you know, tardigrades could save Planet Earth by scientists studying tardigrades and looking at these adaptations and as, and figuring out what are the mechanisms that allow, and that then enable tardigrades to be able to, to achieve these amazing feats of survival and by better understanding that that will, you know, that will give scientists a lot of information about just, you know, how these understanding how these mechanisms work could, you know, could, could help it could help inform studies about not, not necessarily for our survival, but for understanding how evolution enables animals to, in some cases survive where other animals could not. And potentially that could be something that could then be applied to our advantage, to looking at, you know, looking at what humans are already capable of and then moving on from there to, okay, well, you know, what are, what are the extreme, you know, like what are the limits of what humans can survive now and potentially what could allow us to go beyond that, to I dunno, maybe, maybe achieve a more extreme level of survival. Maybe not the same level as tardigrades, but, but beyond what we have now.

AMY: Yeah. Maybe if we’re able to replicate the processes that tardigrades used when they enter cryptobiosis, we can take those learnings to apply to regenerative medicine for humans or other species, or even I’ve seen tardigrade research that aligns with CRISPR 9. For folks that don’t know what CRISPR 9 is, I won’t go into too much detail, but it’s essentially gene therapy and gene editing coupled with CRISPR 9, the biomimetic process could completely transform the growing and distribution of food to the world. 

MINDY: Yeah. So, so obviously, obviously it’s a big, it’s a big step and there is no, you know, there was no direct path from identifying something that works in tardigrades and just, you know, being able to cut and paste and apply it to the human genome. That’s obviously that’s not something that’s going to happen, but there are, but, you know, breaking, breaking down certain aspects of what’s happening in a tardigrades body, then understanding understanding the stages of that process and how it, you know, how it works in tardigrades, and within, within the tardigrade genome. That could be, that could be a first step to building on that, to understand how it could potentially be applied to more complex forms of life, such as people.


AMY: In 2018, I attended the ASGSR conference from my employer, Airbus space systems. We attended this conference to find payloads, to send to the international space station using our shuttle system. Brooke Shepard, who was at NASA’s Space Life Sciences Training Program at the time came up to our booth and casually told me about tardigrades. She was the first person to introduce tardigrades to me. And after the conference, I immediately went back to my hotel room and started intensely researching them. I chat with Brooke about when she first fell in love with science, her introduction to tardigrades and how her tardigrade experiment at NASA went terribly wrong.

BROOKE SHEPARD: I think the first time that I learned about tardigrades, I was like, I think I was like late high school or like early college or something like that. And I remember just watching a YouTube video on them and being so just perplexed and weirded out that tardigrades can just lie dormant for just like decades at a time. You know? So they’re in these extreme environments, they’re in space, they’re in like, you know, high temperature, low oxygen, think it’s even like high pH, and they just don’t care. They’ll just, they’ll just lie dormant until everything’s fine. And then they just come back out just completely normal. And that it kind of reminded me of sci-fi movies and video games and stuff where you go like a jillion light years away to like some far off planet. And you go into this like cryogenic freezing tube humans. There’s so much technology involved in humans being in this cryogenic freezing and then, you know, awakening a year later, and tardigrades, they just do that, you know, no problem. So that, I think that was the first thing where I was just like, wow, I can’t believe that there’s something out there that just really does that.

AMY: You touched on so many different points with, with that. But one of the things I think that’s so fascinating about tardigrades is they can live in so many different environments. They’re so adaptive, but they’re also so ubiquitous. There are over 1500 species of just tardigrades they have their own phylum and, and they’re, and they’re extremophiles. But yet we can go out anyone, like most of us on Planet Earth can go out and just find a little garden and collect a little bit of tardigrade. You’ll just find them, right in your own backyard. So it’s really, it’s really amazing. I know that you’re a scientist now, and you’ve been always, as long as I’ve known you and you learned about tardigrades back in high school and college, I’m sure that might’ve had an effect on what made you go into science and become a scientist. And can you talk to us a little bit about that journey, what that journey’s been like?

BROOKE: When I was around high school, early college age, I really love science. I really thought it was cool. And, you know, just learning about little things, like tardigrades really just made me excited to, to learn more. And sciences, you know, kind of the, me of learning more about new things that nobody knows before. So that was really exciting to me. And the thing that really got me that really solidified my choice to be a scientist was actually when I was at NASA, when I did my internship with the Space Life Sciences Training Program actually earlier in, in 2018. And it was really just when there are these abstract concepts that you’re learning about in like YouTube videos and, you know, maybe in classes and stuff like that. But once I actually got to NASA and saw that there are really just researchers out there working on, you know, things like tardigrades there, this like abstract concept in my mind finally just like hit reality of like, oh, I can actually do this. You know, there, there really are scientists out there doing exactly what I want to do. So that kind of solidified my choice of as like an early career scientist. And as a queer woman, I thought it was just really exciting that I had done research before I got to NASA, but there weren’t really a lot of people in my lab, or even the people who I was working with before that, who looked like me and who had the same identity as me and who, you know, have the same values as me. And then once I got to NASA and saw that almost all of the people that was like oh my gosh, I can actually do this. And so that was really exciting. And, and one of those people, um, were a scientist working on tardigrades. So tardigrades do play a little role in the way that science was kind of solidified for me in the beginnings.

AMY: I can’t imagine what it must be like to work at a NASA lab full of females. It must be insane. It must, it just must be. I just it’s mind blowing in itself to think of like the opportunity with that.

BROOKE: Oh, yeah. I mean, we would, you know, get together for meetings and it’s like, oh, there’s a lot of power in this room, you know?

AMY: Yeah. 

BROOKE: That just kind of changed everything.

AMY: Do you have any fun stories about tardigrades?

BROOKE: It’s a fun story talking about it now. I think maybe at the time it wasn’t as fun, but back when I was doing my internship at NASA, the, uh, amazing interns in, in my cohort, designed this group, project experiment to do a high altitude balloon that went all the way up into the stratosphere, uh, collected some microbes and then brought them back down to see what kind of microbes, um, and, and,  and like characterizing the microbes in the stratosphere basically. As an add-on to that project, we also decided to take some, tardigrades, add them onto that balloon and then see how tardigrades were basically being affected by that change in altitude and change in pressure and stuff like that. So that was a really, well-designed, really cool project that I was really happy to be a small part of, but the reason why it’s kind of a fun, fun, I say fun. It’s kind of an interesting story, is because our high altitude balloon ended up being blown hundreds of miles away from where it was supposed to land, and we were supposed to collect it. So we kind of just went on this wild goose chase of trying to, we just took the whole weekend to drive all around, to try to find this balloon and, and capture it so that we could get our samples. And not only did it land hundreds of miles away, and it took the whole weekend to get to it, but it also landed like on top of like the tallest tree on top of like the tallest mountain. It was such a task. It was, it was such an adventure to try to get that darn balloon down. And it stayed there for so long that we ended up having to, I don’t even know if the samples ended up getting analyzed or not. And we had to call the local, they were like forestry people that we had. Then we had to call to, to bring them, to get that balloon down. So props to them, we were really happy that they helped us get our balloon down. But yeah, at the time, it was, it was stressful, but now it’s kind of just like, wow, look at, you know, think about that crazy thing that happened that one time. So, but the lessons that we learned were that, you know, the science hardly ever works like you expect it to. And that’s kind of part of the fun, is that even when your experiment is designed super well and you plan everything out perfectly, sometimes it doesn’t work out perfectly. And if, if you can, you know, if you can take it like an adventure, then, um, you get to learn lots of new things and that’s really great.

AMY: Let’s get scientific here, Brooke. I want to know, can you give me science back reasons why tardigrades are going to save the earth?

BROOKE: I was actually just reading this article the other day, and I think it was one that, that your organization posted as well. Um, and it’s this article by Sara Sánchez-Moreno et al. And they’re talking about the role of tardigrades in suppressing these, these certain parasitic organisms to plants. So basically there are these nematodes, which are basically just worms, and they are parasitic to plants. So that means that they live off of the plants and, and end up doing damage to the plants or killing them, which is bad because we want to keep plants around, right. So these researchers found that there are two species of tardigrades that when they are present, have actually suppressed this population of plant parasitic worms, uh, which is really useful because we want to make sure that our plants stick around. So if tardigrades can, can do that. That’s a really interesting thing to note because we want to be able to help the earth any way we can. So that is one way that tardigrades are helping our plant population.

AMY: When Brooke was at NASA, she teamed up with Sonali Verma, another NASA intern, where they worked on a project to understand the molecular mechanisms of radio tolerance in tardigrades. Sonali graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2019, where she completed a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology with minors in astronomy and biochemistry. No big deal. Right? [laughs] She now works at NASA as part of the radiation biology lab in the Bay Area, studying the central nervous system’s response to deep space radiation.

SONALI VERMA: I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of different research projects from, you know, from in vitro fertilization, to pancreatic cancer, to liver stem cell research, to, you know, central nervous system and radiation. But tardigrades were the one was the one project that I worked on that felt so, like I was starting from the beginning. It felt like there wasn’t enough of a community to, to such a solid understanding of tardigrades. So it felt like I was doing a lot of groundbreaking research that I was, you know, starting from the bottom, you know, what’s the best food to feed my tardigrades, how long can they go without me changing the water, their media or whatever. What happens if, you know, if I just start, you know, zapping them, how many eggs can they grow? What is this thing? Why are they eating it? So that was the terrible summer. I found out my tardigrades in a very terrible, terrible state can become carnivores. So tardigrades are just so cool. But I, from my own personal trajectory as a scientist, it felt kind of validating that I can start research right from the ground up. And I can ask really interesting, inquisitive questions and then answer those questions again, using my own experimental designs, my own techniques, my own research. They gave me a lot of confidence and also a lot of hope too, that there’s something really interesting out there that we don’t know yet, that we don’t fully understand, you know, the mechanisms of its existence really hasn’t been fully elucidated, so there’s so much to do. And that kind of, you know, for, for someone who’s a scientist who starting out. That gives me a lot of hope. I’m not just doing something that’s, you know. Oh, I guess I’m, you know, hopping on this bandwagon. I’m doing novel research. Novel with a capital N.

AMY: Just out of curiosity, what do you feed tardigrades?

SONALI: I have to tell you, we have tried some crazy things on our tardigrades. I think we ended up trying things ranging from protein powders to spirulina, to their most normal diet is actually just algae. So it’s like, you know, green algae. Yeah, we tried some really crazy interesting things just to get our tardigrades to see like, okay, can we start feeding them something that’s abiotic versus biotic, you know, biotic would be, you know, the algae that we feed them, but you know, if we wanted to sustain tardigrades for a longer term, take them up to a space flight, for example, could we feed them something that’s more abiotic, you know, like a protein powder, like spirulina, something that’s almost like dehydrated. Unfortunately, algae did turn out to be the, obviously the best option, but there were definitely some contenders, I think. Tardigrades they liked their protein powder with L-glutamine. Those guys can get jacked.

AMY: Wow. Amazing.

SONALI: It’s very fascinating. It was fascinating.

AMY: Can you give us one of the most important reasons why you think tardigrades are going to save planet earth?

SONALI: Um, man, just one? I’ll give you kind of one overarching thing. So my research with tardigrades specifically surrounded this idea of why are they so radio tolerant. Radio tolerant in the sense that why can they survive such extreme conditions of radiation. So first some perspective, tardigrades can tolerate up to about 5,000 grays of ionizing radiation. Now, gray is kind of like just a degree of measurement of, of radiation. For some perspective, mammals can only survive about four grades of acute ionizing radiation. So 5,000 versus four grays, it’s a huge difference. And for some further perspective, you know, a chest x-ray is only about 0.0007 grays. 

AMY: Oh, wow. 

SONALI: And the firefighters right at the front of the nuclear reactor core at the Chernobyl disaster, the first responders, experienced about 180 grays of ionizing radiation. So these bad boys can tolerate orders of magnitude, more of, you know, just really bad, nasty radiation. How do they do it? What makes them so radio tolerant, and how can we actually potentially harness that type of lifesaving really, you know, quality? There was actually this really fascinating group in Japan. Hashimoto et al actually published a paper in Nature Communications in 2016, and it was kind of a groundbreaking study where they actually took, uh, a tardigrade unique protein, into a human cell line and then irradiated that human cell line. And they found that, that those human cell lines would that tardigrades unique protein, showed an improved radio tolerance and suppressed x-ray induced DNA damage by about 40%. I mean, that is a significant amount. So, you know, we don’t really know how that protein, you know, the, the mechanism of how that protein works. There’s a lot of actually research being done on that now, but the, the real catch is, you know, if they’re so radio tolerant, can we potentially harness some of that power. Even if not for ourselves, then maybe for foods that we bring on long-term space flights, so that we can have good quality live actual, fresh food, as opposed to, you know, dehydrated stuff that comes out of a tube. And this could be lifesaving stuff for longer space flights, or, you know, whatever random radiation events that may be may occur towards space travel and going beyond Earth. Tardigrades aren’t just going to save planet earth. They’re going to save humanity. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what they can offer. 

AMY: Yeah. That’s next level. So I know that the way that you and I came to meet is through Brooke Shepard, who also featured on the podcast. And I met Brooke at a space-related show and where was working for a company. We were looking for payloads to send up to the International Space Station to create sort of a transit loop. And Brooke and I got to talking and she mentioned tardigrades and I said, what? What’s this? And tardigrades as they relate to commercial product development, like you were just talking about, regenerative medicine and possible biomimetic processes for agriculture and other forms of life. Can you talk to us a little bit about the project that you did with Brooke at NASA that you were both involved in? We would love to hear about that.

SONALI: Man. What a cool project. So at the end of our research, at the end of our summer, you know, we had to come up with some sort of a group project, and we decided we were actually going to study, that was during the 2018 California wildfire season, which was pretty devastating, unfortunately. So we decided to study specifically the black carbon, or the soot, essentially, that was being generated from all of those fires and seeing if there was a higher microbial content in the atmosphere as a result of all of that carbon source in the, in the air. So essentially, were aerobial microbes kind of hitchhiking on to these, you know, this, this now abundant foods. That was something we were interested in knowing a little bit more about. We decided to send them a payload to study that, but my group was actually really interested in saying, well, you have all these tardigrades, Soni, and they’re pretty extreme extremophilic. What if we just kind of slap on a couple to our payload and, you know, send them up and see what happens? And I thought, okay, so you’re saying you want to expose my tardigrades to varying levels of pressure, temperature, radiation? Yes, a thousand percent, I’m in. Let’s do it. Of course I wanted in. So I thought this would be such a fantastic idea. So the night before we launched our payload, I isolated 100 tardigrades, and I put them into this kind of device. They were still metabolically active. Which personally was my mistake. And by the time they came down, you know, we retrieved the payload, I grabbed the, you know, my tardigrades and I thought, okay, I need to go look at them now. Like, I want to see what happened to them. We need to go stain them, see how they’re faring, whatever, are they reproducing. I put in a hundred adult tardigrades, none of them looked like they were about to lay eggs. And so none of them looked like they were molting either. So I thought, okay, this is great. I should find a hundred tardigrades in here. I looked through the disc, and I found no tardigrades. I found absolutely zero. I thought this is the weirdest thing ever. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I saw a little bit of debris, and I saw more debris, and I saw more debris and I thought, oh no. So then it hit me. Tardigrades have a fluidic skeletons, not quite like a hard skeleton, but more of like a hydrostatic skeleton, or like a fluid filled compartment called a hemolymph, similar to our blood. That gas exchange in tardigrades actually occurs via water that enters their bodies through cuticle walls. Now if you’re a tiny little tardigrade going up in elevation at such a high rate, and then, you know, the balloon pops, and you eventually come back down in elevation at such a high rate as well. You’re going to experience, what’s known as bends.

AMY: Oh no.

SONALI: So essentially, you know, this was so much to, you know, divers, you know, ring divers breathe when divers go down, you know, they breathe in compressed air that contains nitrogen. And so, you know, at a higher pressure, underwater that nitrogen gas goes into body tissues, and it doesn’t necessarily cause a problem when a diver is down in the water. But if the diver rises up too fast, the nation starts to bubble, because of pressure differentials. And now in my tardigrades, they came back up and down so fast, that nitrogen that was inside of their, you know, fluid cap cavities instead of their hemolymph, started to bubble. And that’s when I thought, I think my tardigrades got the bends and that was when I found a headless tardigrade.

AMY: So you only found one headless tardigrade after and, and then 99, just unaccounted for?

SONALI: Just debris everywhere. And I just found, I mean, I found, after I looked a little closer. I thought, I don’t know what this debris is. I realized some of the debris were like a leg or an arm, you know, or a part of their body. It was not great. I have found ways, that tardigrades are destructible and that is the bends.

AMY: So, so theoretically, if they had gone up in a tun state, where they’re dehydrated. They could have survived, but I think that’s important thing to note is that they have to be dehydrated before they’re ready for space travel or, you know, high aptitude travel.

SONALI: Yeah. Their androhydrobiosis state is so powerful. Really. I mean, European space agencies have said tardigrades on the outside of their spacecraft, you know, and have been able to revive them. And they’ve been able to reproduce and eat and exist very normally. But that’s from their tun state, I made the mistake of sending them up in they’re very metabolically active state, where they were able to experience the bends and have a very painful, painful experience. And I felt really bad.

AMY: Well, hopefully you’ll be forgiven by the tardigrade gods.

SONALI: I really hope so, man. Lots of transgressions there. 

AMY: Yeah. Right. Note to self, not don’t do that again.

[Sonali laughs]


AMY: I hope you enjoyed this episode and had just as much fun learning about tardigrades as I have. Let us know your favorite thing about tardigrades by joining our community on the LinkedIn N A T R C page and on our webpage at the-NATRC.org. Thank you to Brooke, Sonali,, and to Mindy for sharing their stories and love of tardigrades. To Cosmo Sheldrake for letting us share your music on this episode. Follow them on social. Links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening. And until next time. This podcast was produced, written and edited in partnership with Leah Jackson at Puka Puka Creative and Aha! marketing strategy.