September 15 – Making the Tardigrade

Today’s factismal: The water bear has inspired a new type of glass.

If you have a crazy uncle (and who doesn’t?), odds are you’ve heard him say something like “Why do we spend so darn much on science? It never does nothing for us nohow!” Fortunately, it isn’t very hard to show your uncle where he’s wrong. For example, researchers have found new antibiotics from bacteria living in mud, have reduced the death rate to all-time lows using vaccines, turned fatal diseases into manageable problems, and found ways to speed shipping. And most recently, they have found a way to turn a tardigrade’s protective system into a stronger and clearer form of glass.

A tardigrade on a Q-tip (Image courtesy Darron Birgenheier)

A tardigrade on a Q-tip
(Image courtesy Darron Birgenheier)

What is a tradigrade, you ask? Why just one of the most amazing critters on Earth (or off of it). These little “water bears” shuffle about on moss, sucking the sap and being generally awesome. Also known as moss piglets, they have eight legs, a sharp snout, and an amazing ability to adapt. They are found in the depths of the ocean, on the highest mountains, in hot springs at 150°F, and below freezing ice. They can even go into a type of suspended animation when things get too extreme and come back to life when things get better later on.

A tardigrade getting along swimmingly (Image courtesy Tommy from Arad)

A tardigrade getting along swimmingly
(Image courtesy Tommy from Arad)

And that last trick was the clue that led to a new form of glass. When tardigrades go into suspended animation, they shed almost all of their water which mixes with proteins and other things on their outer shell and turns into a glasslike molecule that shields them from the environment. When researchers saw that, they decided to see if they could replicate the trick using ordinary glass. By depositing one thin layer of molecules at a time, they were able to build a glass that has a regular structure and some pretty irregular (for glass) properties. It was able to transmit light more efficiently, making it ideal for lasers and leds and solar cells. And it was stronger, making it ideal for screens and surgical tools. And all of this came about because some scientists looked at a tardigrade and asked “why can’t we do that?”

So the next time someone asks you what use science is, point to the handy tardigrade (assuming you can find one) and say “ask it!”

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