Cracking Our Genetic Code

I have talked about these amazing creatures before, but this article I found really goes into detail about how strange and totally awesome they really are.

They are called Water Bears of if you want to get scientific they go by Tardigrades, which is a strange name to say the least. But their name certainly does nothing to tell how bad ass these creatures are. The thing that makes them so amazing is that they are extremophiles, to the point where they are basically the most extreme extremophile. An extremophile is an animal that can survive the harshest and most extreme environment on the planet. While there are certainly some pretty amazing animals on the planet that live in some pretty harsh conditions, the water bear is certainly unique.

This animal can survive being completely dried out, in which it goes into a sort of hibernation when this happens only to rehydrated itself when water is introduced. Not only that but studies have shown that it can also survive heavy radiation bombardment, that in and of itself is pretty amazing. But the thing to me that is the most fascinating is that this creature can survive the vacuum of space, I am not aware of many if any creatures that can accomplish this feat. That is pretty cool.

So what makes this thing so unique and able to live through basically anything. Well scientist have been studying the water bear for a while and have found that it has the capability to repair its own DNA. I could be wrong but this may be one of the only animals that has this capability. What else is interesting is that this animal also has plant DNA in its own DNA.

What they found was that 17.5% of the tardigrade genome actually comes from other organisms, including plants, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. These genes entered tardigrade DNA in a process known as horizontal gene transfer, which is quite common among single-celled organisms but rare among animals. 

That is pretty crazy, and what is more interesting is that this seems to be somewhat common among single celled organisms. Scientist think the water bears use other organisms DNA to repair its own when it encounters “stress,” by stress I am pretty sure they mean a life threatening situation. So it takes this DNA, repairs its own and uses this new DNA to make itself stronger so what just happened to it will not kill it next time. That is simply amazing and really makes you think about how and if we could harness and use this ability ourselves if we are able to truly crack our genetic code.

Before I get started I am not sure if this is even possible for multicellular animals, such as ourselves. That article says its rare, but I am not sure what that means. Still though, it does make you wonder about the possibilities of this technology. I think to some small extent our immune systems do this. When a pathogen enters our body our white blood cells identify it as an invader and begin to attack it and kill it. However, if it is unable to the pathogen can cause all sorts of problems. Usually a healthy immune system will eventually be able to beat the pathogen and win the battle. When this happens the white blood cells remember that particular pathogen so if it happens to come back they know how to attack it, and what tools to use to beat it again, think of chicken pox. This is one of the many reasons the common cold always makes you sick. It is a virus that is always mutating so the cold you got last year is not the same one you have now, which is why your body has such a hard time fighting it. It is also why you will probably get a cold and get sick next winter.

So our bodies kind-of-sort-of do this, but not necessarily to the extent of the water bear. While our immune systems are certainly amazing they still fall well short of what the water bear is capable of. I have to wonder that if one day we will figure out how to repair our DNA, if we could do something similar to what the water bear does. If slowly we could be exposed to extreme situations and our bodies could eventually build up immunities to these conditions it could be a step toward extreme long life and or possibility immortality.

I know that word has all sorts of connotations and most think it is impossible. I mostly agree but I have to think that at some point we will figure out the answers to any number of unknowns we have about our bodies, once this happens then the impossible will become possible.

From my brief and armature knowledge of how DNA works is that the breakdown of this simple compound is the cause to any number of diseases and the reason we age. Our DNA on a cellular level breaks down over time and out cells ability to repair it also becomes less and less efficient. Imagine an astronaut being exposed to the vacuum of space and not knowing the difference because his/her cells are able to withstand the stress, or setting foot on a Mars and being able to handle the wild temperature swings with no ill effects. All of these feats would be amazing if we could potentially harness this ability. If there was a way to make our cells indestructible or at the very least capable of withstanding extreme conditions, humans could become super human. No I do not think we would all be superheroes, but I think as far as getting sick and genetic diseases go they would be all but whipped out.

There are so many applications for this technology, but for me one of the biggest would be space exploration. If we could implement this technology, it could circumvent a plethora of problems with deep space travel. Instead of basically creating a livable environment on a ship we could save money, weight, and energy by not having to worry so much about having a safe livable environment. Not only that but radiation, muscle loss, and plenty of other problems could be easily solved and or not be a major concern.

I wonder how close we are to cracking our genetic code, that is the real question.

Manik

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