back to article 'Water bears' survive in outer space

A European Space Agency experiment shows that tiny eight-legged invertebrates known as "water bears" are the first known animal to survive the vacuum and radiation of space. The hardy critters, also called tardigrades, are between 0.1 to 1.5 millimeters long and thrive in moist conditions. They can commonly be found munching …


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  1. Emo

    I for one..

    Welcome our Water Bear overlords.

  2. Wonderkid

    More ammo to Sir Fred Hoyle...

    ...who argued that life on Earth could have originated from up there, rather than down here. "Son, your great great great E234 Grandpa was a water bear. So when you next look up to the stars, think of how far he came so you could be here today..." ;-)

  3. Tom Ince

    Wonder if

    PETA is gonna be on their asses! I guess PETA don't care about Water Bears eh! Poor guys!

  4. Kanhef

    I have to wonder

    who came up with this idea. Were a couple of boffins sitting in the pub (after several drinks) and one says, "Let's launch some water bears into space, expose them to hard radiation and vacuum for a while, and see what happens."? As much as I enjoy science, I cannot fathom how they think of some of their experiments.

  5. RW

    The Origin of Geeks

    Naked, exposed to hard UV in space, dehydrated, suffered genetic damage, but lived and laid eggs. Their parents, that is.

    Is a mutated tardigrade a tradigarde?

    I amuse myself far too easily.

    Next week: The Origin of BOFH's.

  6. Steven Knox

    Missing phrase?

    "Joensson suspects even the survivors suffered DNA damage from radiation, but were able to genetic material."

    Exactly how do you genetic material? Can you even verb genetic?

    @Kanhef -- I rather suspect the scientists who came up with this idea were studying water bears and the conversation went something like:

    "Man these things can survive anything!"

    "Nah, bet they can't survive the vacuum of space."

    "How much?"

    IANAS, but even I've heard of the resilience of these little buggers. It's not surprising at all that a scientist familiar with their strengths would want to see how much they can survive.

  7. Mad Hacker

    Have they ever done this with a human?

    Maybe we could survive just fine. Throw McCain and Palin out the airlock and let's see how they do.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    so, carl sagan was right then ...

    we come from the stars

  9. Kevin


    they smoke lots and lots of marijuana plain and simple its the only explanation.

  10. Gareth Irwin

    I am struggling

    To see the point in this one.

  11. Andre Labuschagne
    Dead Vulture

    Rushing to meet a deadline maybe?

    Did the author of this piece rush to meet a deadline and in doing so neglect checking for grammar and completeness? WTF is the following supposed to mean: "Joensson suspects even the survivors suffered DNA damage from radiation, but were able to genetic material"?

    Were able to what genetic material - rematerialise, devour, mutate, fornicate with?

    This is pretty much the point of the experiment by all indications, so why not read the article again before publishing to make sure that the sentence makes sense?

  12. Dan Reeder
    Thumb Up

    water bear = spore creature

    wow, just wow... I reckon it would be one simple step further to theorise (or even find) that a bug like the water bear could have a slightly harder/thicker shell to shield itself against the nasty types of solar radiation described, and then voila: quite solid evidence in the effort to prove that life originated extra-terrestrially.

  13. Joskyn Jones
    Thumb Up


    People Eating Tasty Animals?

  14. Flocke Kroes Silver badge


    It is not that hard to come up with an idea like this. First you need a problem: in this case radiation therapy kills some good cells as well as lots of cancer cells. Designing a gene from scratch that repairs damage to DNA in non-cancerous cells is far too much like hardwork. It is much easier to find such a gene that already exists, and adapt it to your needs.

    Next you need someone with an enormous budget. NASA are a reasonable choice, but DARPA seems more appropriate. (Remember the study that involved teaching monkeys to fly by electrocuting them when they crashed, then finding the smallest dose of radiation required to make them crash?). Department of homeland security also have money, but they cannot tell the difference between junk and science, so the competition is tougher.

    There is a bunch of organisms called extremophiles that can live in harsh conditions. They are the obvious choice to start looking for any unusual genes. Your next step is to expose a selection of extremophiles with your radio therapy equipment. Any that survive are good candidates for further investigation.

    Unfortunately, this is not that expensive, and does not require NASA. NASA would be interested in radiation hardening their astronauts, so the idea shows promise. While we are at it, vacuum is a bit of a problem. Some extremophiles can survive at high altitude. Get out your vacuum pump and test some likely creatures. Oops - too cheap try again:

    There are cosmic rays in space that we cannot make on earth. At last - an excuse big enough to involve NASA. By this time you have experience in breeding extremophiles, and with a bit of selective breeding, you have the world's biggest collection of radiation hardened vacuum resistant animals. Time to make your pitch to NASA.

    Bad news - they are not entirely dim - but they have their on motives. They need some <strike>excuses</strike> experiments to justify the space station budget, so they are interested in the experiment, but not funding your new swimming pool. Not to worry though - they are interested in publicising a successful experiment. You can ride the publicity to some less frugal investors, point at the startling abilities of extrophiles, say you have NASA convinced and get that pool after all.

  15. Frank

    Solution to Mystery

    "Joensson suspects even the survivors suffered DNA damage from radiation, but were able to (?) genetic material."

    The missing word is 'repair' and I claim my prize :)

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Follow that

    Hard act to follow, but seeing how many survive to breed after a few laps in the LHC might be a good start.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Water bears!

    I keep thinking of Sea-Bears from Spongebob long as you draw a perfect circle in the sand you'll be safe....

  18. Neil Bauers

    New Experiment - Old Story

    This has been known about for years. Maybe this report got delayed in a time warp created by the Large Hardon Collider.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    So, only one question left unanswered, then:

    just how DO you kill the little buggers?

  20. Anonymous Coward

    but were able to genetic material.

    yes exactly. (perhaps regenerate?)

  21. Anonymous Coward

    I have to wonder

    how many other species have been tested?

    WWWhales in Space? Snakes on a space-plane???

  22. Anonymous Coward

    That NOT news

    Look at all insects, the hard carapace, able to survive extremes of cold, heat, vacuum and radiation.

    Exactly like tiny spaceships.

    The reason they are finding new species all the time is that THEY ARE STILL ARRIVING.

    Be be fooled people, the invasion Phase 1 is nearing completion. Phase 2 will begin at 00:00:01 21st December 2012.

    Scared? You'd better be.

  23. amlendu

    IG Noble anyone

    This certainly qualifies for IG nobel prze. Maybe we should send all living creatures to space one by one. Lets start with blue whale !

  24. Daniel Wilkie

    Genetic Material

    So how do you exactly genetic material? I mean if they were able to genetic material, so should we be able to...

  25. Owen Parry
    Paris Hilton

    "But were able to genetic material"

    "How that was accomplished "remains a mystery,""

    I'll Say...

  26. Psmiffy

    Most interesting

    I find things like this most interesting. Who decided that these poor creatures needed to be put through this kind of testing, as opposed to, oh, cockroaches come to mind.

    Also, some sentences in this article jsut didn't make sense, and I am not sure if that is Austins fault or the fault of the Swedish dudes Euronglish. Things like "..., but were able to genetic material".

    And finally, we have now subjected these little critters to extreme conditions, space radiation and who knows what else, and now they are breeding. Is this a good thing? Really?

  27. Moon

    @ Kanhef

    Probably the same bunch of 'scientists' who wondered what a cat would do in zero gravity (well OK - free fall) - the answer? Spin round furiously then attach itself to the nearest 'scientist'

  28. John Latham


    The idea probably originated from the debate "which is harder - Chuck Norris or a water bear?".

  29. Vladimir Tax

    nothing new

    Anabiosis in Tardigrada has been know for quite a while and the creature has been to open space before. Either this is a new experiment or your reporter has "discovered America".

    It is an extremely interesting being. The creatures can fill their cells with trehalose, a saccharide, which conserves them like a mummy. It is known to have survived a bath in liquid helium, boiling water, anaerobic conditions, extreme radiation etc.

    An alien, because God knows where they have come from.

  30. Anonymous Coward

    I hope

    None escaped, if some unlucky martian happens to pass by and the little water bear ends up on his person, the martian might discover a water bear nibbling on his exterior, and once again humankind will have infected other civilisations with things they never had before :)

  31. Alan Silver badge

    Are Gummy Bears...

    ...mutated Water Bears?

  32. b166er


    Presumably, they had already noticed that Water Bears are quite resilient here on Earth (perhaps that they weren't drowning in the drinks you mention for example), so decided to volunteer them for more extreme testing outside the atmosphere.

    Perhaps these little critters can help terraforming Mars?

  33. Simon
    Paris Hilton


    From my experience of Swedes (the people, not the root vegetable) they have lots of time on their hands to mull over the complexitites of such earth shattering experiments as they seem to spend lots of time chatting, drinking coffee, eating cake and getting very, very drunk (particularly on the weekend after payday!!)

    Paris as I wonder what experiments she like to do in zero gravity...

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They do know...

    Humans have survived exposure to hard vacuum at least twice, with the only long-term damage being to one person's eyes. The suggestion that simple organisms can survive it for longer is hardly incredible.

  35. Anonymous Coward


    There's no woods in outer space. How do they sh.....?

  36. Joe K
    Thumb Up

    Well thats ok then

    I had a mental image of NASA shoving some cuddly aqua-coloured teddybear like creatures out of the airlock.

    But little flea-things? Fuck em.

  37. LaeMi Qian

    @ Kanhef ;-)

    I think it might have been more along the lines of sitting at the pub "What creature might survive that?" "Well waterbears can survive just about every extreme the surface of the Earth can throw at them, so..."

  38. Andrew


    Let's hope it wasn't trial and error. Launch puppy 2!

  39. Paul Buxton


    Not so hard to fathom why this species was tested under these conditions. It makes sense that, if you're looking for an organism that can survive in space, you would start with extremophiles. The waterbear survives in some of the harshest conditions on earth so it seems a fairly good choice for this experiment.

    Also, the cost of making tiny little spacesuits for waterbears would have proved cost inhibitive.

  40. Andy Hards

    It probably went more like...

    Who's harder? A shark, a grizzly, a nasty looking scorpion or a water bear? And let's put them all in a reality show called The World's Hardest and then......

    So now you know.

  41. Al

    It's such a great name....

    It was only going to be a matter of time before someone found a use for tardigrades.

    Mind you, if that's what I was called, I'd go for 'water bear' instead. People don't wonder if you're a window-licker if you're a 'water bear'....

  42. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse

    If I'd been running this experiment it wouldn't have been Tardigrades shoved out the hatch...

    "One problem with radiation therapy in treating cancer today is that healthy cells are also harmed," said a Dimwitted Horse. "If we can document and show that there are special molecules involved in DNA repair in multicellular composites like Scientologists, we might be able to further the development of radiation therapy." ®

  43. Cameron Colley


    I think tardigrades are the default multicellular organism for this kind of experiment.

  44. Bob_Hunk

    Re: I have to wonder

    Presumably the point was to prove that life could have potentially survived and interstellar journey on a comet or other space debris.

    I was interested to hear that they’ve done this as an experiment, as I seem to remember one of my university lecturers talking about water bears and how he thought they could potentially survive in space, and that was several years ago now. Looks like he was right, although I don't believe it was his theory as such; I think it's one that has been 'floating around' for a while now (if you'll excuse the pun). :)

  45. Stef

    Wonderful news

    Thankfully this experiment has now ended world hunger and disease. Crime and poverty have already ended in my part of the world the moment those waterbears were brought back into the ISS. I am hoping this experiment will lead to improved manufacture of nano technology and a clean renewable fuel source to power all factories and cars by the end of the month.

    Tomorrow: Kittens.

  46. drofla
    Dead Vulture

    *I* wonder..

    how many species died in the cold vacuum of space before they found out about water bears?!?

  47. AGirlFromVenus

    Thinking of experiments...

    It would be fun to try and expose Bush and Blair to hard radiation and vacum, and see what happens. Would God protect them? Answer on a postcard.

  48. Anonymous Coward

    Water Bears =

    Hardiest multi-cellular creatures, but they are not a patch on some single cell ones.

  49. dervheid
    Black Helicopters

    Have any of them...

    mutated into huge Godzilla-like creatures after this exposure to high intensity UV and all those cosmic rays (man!)?

    I feel we should be told.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Are Tardigrades bigger on the inside?

  51. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Space? Pah. Birkenhead on a Friday night -

    now that's hostile.

  52. Anonymous Coward

    Grammar Nazis

    Hai guys, I don't know why you're all getting so upset about the grammar. It seems perfectly reasonable to me. In fact, just now while reading this article I accidentally the whole genetic material.

  53. Muscleguy Silver badge

    There are good reasons

    Like the article says at the end for doing work on extremophiles. Preserving organs for donation is one such. During my PhD we hosted a Danish guy (with a Gorgeous German Girlfriend) who was looking at Mountain Wetas, a sort of giant flightless New Zealand cricket. They survive harsh winters on the tops of, surprise quite high mountains. So he firstly put recording equipment up there next to hibernating wetas and confirmed it got cold enough to freeze them. Then he brought some back to the lab and confirmed that they could freeze solid and wake up again when thawed.

    He took some down to Liquid Nitrogen and back again. BTW these are not small insects, they can be 2cm in diameter across the body.

    Some new skin Mr Jones? I'll just rehydrate some for you. Or in the field. Nature is the best teacher and tardigrades are great research material.

    As for panspermia, did you guys not see the attrition rate on the ones expose to UV? Now extend that to drifting between Mars and Earth. I also expect that dried tardigrades burn just fine.

  54. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Out with the bad air

    How do they survive re-entry without being frazzled to a crisp? Do they taste nice, if they are frazzled to a crisp? If Earth passes through a cloud of these things, could we all have a tasty snack by simply standing outdoors, raising our faces to heaven, and opening our mouths?

  55. Andyman

    @ Dan Reeder

    just because a creature can survive the harshness of space doesn't mean they come from there. I daresay a chease and onion pasty could survive the vacuum but I'm pretty sure they come from Greggs

  56. Thomas Swann

    All good, but can they survive...

    ...having their mothership hacked into by a MacBook?

  57. Keith Williams


    "One problem with radiation therapy in treating cancer today is that healthy cells are also harmed," Joensson said. "If we can document and show that there are special molecules involved in DNA repair in multicellular animals like tardigrades, we might be able to further the development of radiation therapy."

    I would think that if you can determine how to repair the genetic damage done by radiation therapy, you are also likely to be able to repair the genetic damage done by cancer, thus eliminating the need for both chemo and radiation therapies.

  58. Nev Silver badge
    Dead Vulture


    The guy spaced 3000 animals and not a peep out of animal rights groups?

    Well, at least it wasn't Sea Monkeys!

    Dead animals (inc. birds): Mostly good for eating.

  59. Anonymous Coward

    Space? Pah. Birkenhead? Pah. Shove 'em in the LHC.

    These tardigrade things are well hard, no doubt about it, but has anyone shoved a load of them in the Large Hadron Collider yet?

    No, I thought not.

    I expect El Reg to follow this up with the CERN authorities and I am also looking forward to the Playmobil re-enactment tomorrow afternoon.

  60. Andy Silver badge


    Isn't that a scale for measuring degrees of fanboiness?


  61. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bioenergetics is the new black

    AC 0625 > "how many survive to breed after a few laps in the LHC"

    I'm thinking of the eV's compared to protons - massive. Think Higgs boson, ticket to Stockholm, fat cheque.

    Vladimir Tax > "The creatures can fill their cells with trehalose, a saccharide, which conserves them like a mummy."

    So in theory I can get them to munch ferro-fluid (add a bit of honey or whatever), cool them down to solidify it in their gut, magnetize them to turn them into dipoles, chuck them into the LHC, and watch them whizz. Methodology sorted. Yay.

    But aren't the critters orifices still likely to be full when they come out. So testing their reproductive faculties after relativistic speed exposure could be a problem.

    Anyone know exactly how water bears reproduce (apart from with a bear behind)?

  62. Tim

    Can we genetically mutate them...

    ... to be 6 feet tall, without losing their innate hardiness, then dig out their organs to convert them into cybernetic armour for bipeds like me?

  63. Tim Bergel
    Thumb Down

    Stop it, stop it - just stop!

    Please, *please* can we have an embargo on "I for one welcome our new xxxx overlords" comments from now on - it's getting <really> boring.

  64. J

    @I am struggling

    "To see the point in this one."

    Because you're either stupid or didn't read the article to the end, I'd say.

    @Keith Williams

    "you are also likely to be able to repair the genetic damage done by cancer"

    I saw the "smiley" there but felt like I should point this out anyway just in case: cancer does NOT cause genetic damage; cancer IS CAUSED by genetic damage. Big diff.

  65. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Stop it, stop it - just stop!

    As long as we can also stop people suffixing words with -tard to pretend they made a clever insult.

  66. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    At the risk of admitting I watch children's cartoons, doesn't this beastie look suspiciously like Appa, Ang's pet flying bison from Avatar: The Last Airbender?

  67. David Pollard

    Red rain again?

    Given the rapid increase in references that Google shows for [tardigrade] in the last day or so, it seems that someone is pumping the twelve month old research paper by the ESA.

    Could this be connected with the latest relaunch of Godfrey Louis's 'spores from space' story that purportedly explained the red rain that fell in Kerala for six or seven weeks during 2001, and which echoed into New Scientist, the Observer, Horizon etc.?

    (Earlier 'world exclusive', January 2006,

    The 'official' line is that the red rain was caused by Trentepohlia spores. Louis, supported by Chandra Wickramasinghe and others, maintains that it was cometary spores from space. The most probable cause is chemical pollution from the Eloor industrial estate though no one wants to say this.

  68. jeremy


    Mine's the one with the crowbar in the pocket.

  69. Anonymous Coward

    Isn't this Old News?

    Isn't this old news? IIRC my 30-year-old high school biology textbook noted that "... microbes, and even small invertebrates like water bears, can withstand prolonged exposure to the vacuum of space." I believe this was cited as the reason that the Viking landers were so thoroughly sterilized prior to launch.

    Also, didn't they find that some microbes survived being launched on the Surveyor lunar landers when pieces of one of them (Surveyor 3?) was brought back by Apollo 12?

  70. Bounty


    wonder how well they'd last if you stuck them in a comet first. the layers of rock and ice could shield them from UV etc. Then if if fell to earth a chunk may fall off and slow down to normal (non heat-friction) speeds before gently dropping some bears into our atmosphere.

    I wanna see this for the next experiment:

    water bears + some archaea + some bacteria, protozoa etc. in an icy rock set in orbit. We can visit every so often to see how things are going and adjust the ratios to facilitate equilibrium. Maybe we'd have to put them in a container of some sort... but it would be really cool if we could make a self sustaining system like that.

  71. Anonymous Coward

    @Stop it, stop it - just stop!

    I for one welcome our new anal retentive, no sense of humour having troglodyte overlords and bid them bon voyage as they venture into the vacuum of space never to be heard from again.

  72. Ed


    When I die I wanna come back as a water bear

  73. Mr Mark V Thomas


    Re:John Latham's 11th Sept 08:03 post

    Now can we send Chuck Norris into space, minus a Pressure suit...?

    After all, we need to find out he can last without air, for the comparison to be valid...

  74. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Stop it, stop it - just stop!

    I for one welcome our overlord memes

  75. Talamasca


    Can they code?

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