The Living Head That Returned From the Dead- A True Story By Barbara Arnstein
FROM FATE ISSUE 731
Frankenstein and Franceschi “Look, it’s moving. It’s ALIVE! In the 1931 movie “Frankenstein,” the fictitious Dr. Frankenstein shouts with joy when the human body he’s stitched together from graveyard-gathered parts comes to life. In 1948, real-life zoologist Tina Franceschi found an animal in a perfect state of preservation after 120 years, and knowing of its legendary ability to remain in suspended animation indefinitely, she worked on reviving it. It came ALIVE! Unfortunately, that animal didn’t live long, but the one scientists found in 2014 and named “Sleeping Beauty” was luckier (more about that later). It was only revealed in 2015, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that the animals (there are millions alive today) vampirically steal genes from smaller creatures, continuously “stitching them” into their own genetic structure to enhance their abilities. Thanks to modern technol- ogy, humans may soon be able to steal some superpowers from them. Meet the Living Head! The animal is popularly known as the “water bear,” but it isn’t actually a bear. It has well-developed muscles, bristling claws and razor-sharp teeth, which come in handy when it tears into smaller ani- mals and sucks out their bodily fluids. It is formally known as the tardigrade, which means “slow walker,” because it walks as clumsily as a bear. You would walk that way, too, if, like tardigrades, you were mostly a head, and your legs stuck straight out from your head area (and weren’t even really legs, but leg-like extensions of your body wall). In the January 2016 issue of “Current Biology,” Frank W. Smith revealed that its ancestors had longer bodies which were mostly “amputated” by evolution: most of the chest and abdomen sections, some of the organs inside them, and even the blueprints (Hox genes) for those body parts. Why was so much taken away? It was a trade-off, not a senseless theft. Nature removed what she did to streamline what was left, preparing tardigrades to receive the ultimate secret weapon: the tun. Tuns are cocoon-like, glassy shields they automatically generate to fend off cold (even freezing cold), heat (even boiling heat), desert dryness, punishing radiation, crushing pressure and even the passage of time. When it’s too cold or too hot or too dry around them, tardigrades roll up into compact little packages and wait until conditions improve. Their other survival superpowers include the ability to lose up to 97 percent of the moisture in their bodies, reduce their metabolism to one one-hundredth of what it normally is, and shrivel down into a powder-like version of themselves, that (unlike the Wicked Witch of the West) revives when water touches it. Thanks to these powers, they live in every environment from the desert to snowy regions. Fossils prove they’ve been around for over 500 million years. You’ll never see them in zoos because they’re the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The Tardigrade and the Tardis You don’t stumble across a 120-year- old living mummy every day of the week, so no one found another one for decades as old, or anywhere near as old, as the one Franceschi found. Then, in 1995, scientists found that lichen gathered in 1985 during the Norwegian Antarctic Research Expedition had some tardigrades in it and were able to revive them. Like the TARDIS, the time machine in the popular British television show, “Dr. Who,” they transferred a living being from one era to another years later without its aging. Tardigrades normally live only three to thirty months, but time-traveling by tun can extend their lifespan immeasurably. Scientists are basically so baffled by the way tardigrades form tuns that they call their formation cryptobiosis, which means “unknown biological process.” Bring It On! While testing the tun’s toughness, scientists subjected tardigrades to various torture tests, including their ability to withstand freezing cold. They stuck tardigrades in tuns in freezers and gradually lowered the temperature. Down to thirty degrees Farenheit, then twenty, ten, ero...and their tuns protected them. At ten below zero, twenty below, thirty, forty, fifty (feeling cold yet?) they remained alive and well. At one hundred degrees below...one hundred and fifty...two hundred...two hundred and fifty...three hundred, they lived! Even at minus three hundred and twenty- eight degrees Farenheit they lived, and the scientists could go no lower, be- cause that is just above absolute zero, the lowest possible cold. To test their tolerance to heat, scientists hit them with one hundred degrees Farenheit...one hundred and fifty...two hundred...two hundred and fifty...three hundred degrees! Yet they survived even that! In 2007 they sent them into outer space, putting them into orbit, on the European Space Agency’s BIOPAN 6/Foton- M3 mission, and exposing them to solar radiation and the vacuum of space. Back on earth, rehydrated and out of their tuns, the tardigrades moved around, ate, mated and got bigger. After they had survived conditions more extreme than those in any environment on Earth, naturalist Mike Shaw commented, “We have good evidence for theorizing it’s from another planet.” The Love Life of the Tardigrade Male and female tardigrades reproduce in much the same way people do. I’m referring to the people who create new people by combining sperm and eggs in Petri dishes. Usually their love life is not even that exciting, because the females mostly clone themselves. Often, one fe- male arrives in an isolated area (typically blown by the wind), and as soon as she finds there aren’t any males, churns out a brand-new colony of (all-female) tardigrades. Some tardigrades are hermaphrodites, who can fertilize themselves. Sleeping Beauty Awakes In 1983 a Japanese team of scientists traveled to the Antarctic to study plant life, gathered up a whole bunch of hardy moss plants and shipped them back to Tokyo. For some reason, they didn’t look at them again until 2014. Guess what they found had been accidentally frozen along with them? In an article in the February 2016 issue of “Cryobiology” co-authors Megumu Tsujimoto, Satoshi Imura and Hiroshi Kanda describe the return to life of a tardigrade after thirty years and five months of suspended animation, which they named Sleeping Beauty One.The day after they ended her thirty-year nap in four below zero cold (that’s Farenheit), and rehydrated her, she moved a leg. The day after that, she moved a couple more (they have eight). On the fifth day, she did some stretching; by the ninth day, she started walking around; and less than two weeks after her resurrection, she began eating. Twenty-three days after it, after she’d grown larger, she began laying eggs. Gifts From the Tardigrade Retired biologist John Crowe discovered that, as tardigrades dry out, a simple sugar known as trehalose is created in their bodies that takes the place of the water in it to hold its cells in place. This substance is now being studied because of the possible, incredible benefits it could bring to the lives of countless humans. For example, one of the biggest problems involved with shipping and storing vaccines around the world is that they need to be kept cold to preserve them. If trehalose could be used to preserve them, it would be as beneficial to human lives as the invention of freeze-dried food. Trehalose could potentially also be included in kits sent with soldiers going into combat, to keep their own blood handy in case they were badly wounded and needed it after losing blood, and it could help patients undergoing chemotherapy. “I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers.” The above quote from the last line of H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine could be a tribute to what Svetlana Yashina of the Institute of Cell Biophysics of the Russian Academy of Sciences accomplished. In 2012 she led a team that used fruit and seeds a Siberian squirrel stored in its burrow 30,000 years ago to bring a white flower to life. This feat inspires hope that regeneration is possible long past the time we ever imagined it could be. Who knows what miracles the tardi- grade may bring humanity in the future?