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  • Exploring Tardigrade Extremotolerance: A Genetic Perspective

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    A photograph of the tardigrade Ramazzottius varieornatus, in the center of a phylogeny of CAHS, the largest of the six desiccation-related protein families analyzed in this study.​ (Image Credit: Kazuharu Arakawa, Keio Institute of Advanced Biosciences).



    In a recent study published in Genome Biology and Evolution, an international team of researchers from Keio University Institute for Advanced Biosciences, the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, and the University of Bristol, led by James Fleming, have taken significant strides in decoding the genetic basis of tardigrade extremotolerance. Tardigrades, often referred to as "water bears," are microscopic animals known for their remarkable ability to withstand extreme environmental conditions. This study provides an in-depth analysis of the genetic adaptations that enable this extraordinary resilience.

    Genetic Analysis of Tardigrade Survival Mechanisms
    The research team focused on understanding how tardigrades survive almost complete desiccation through anhydrobiosis—a state where they can halt their metabolism. This study investigated six key gene families known to be associated with anhydrobiosis in tardigrades: CAHS, MAHS, SAHS, EtAHS alpha, EtAHS beta, and MRE11. The team analyzed these gene families across 13 tardigrade genera, which include members from both major tardigrade lineages: the Eutardigrades and Heterotardigrades.

    James Fleming, the study's lead author, explains, “When we began the work, we expected to find that each clade would be clearly grouped around ancient duplications, with few independent losses. That would help us easily tie them to an understanding of modern habitats and ecology.” However, the findings revealed a complex network of independent gene duplications and losses, challenging the initial hypothesis.

    The Complexity of Anhydrobiosis-Related Gene Evolution
    The researchers were surprised by the extensive independent duplications of heat-soluble genes, indicating a more intricate evolution of anhydrobiosis-related genes than previously thought. Contrary to expectations, there was no direct correlation between the number of anhydrobiosis-related genes and the species' terrestrial ecologies. “What we found was far more exciting,” says Fleming, “a complex network of independent gains and losses that does not necessarily correlate to modern terrestrial species ecologies.”

    The study also highlighted the distinct distributions of gene families between the two major tardigrade groups. CAHS, MAHS, and SAHS were predominantly found in Eutardigrades, whereas EtAHS alpha and beta were specific to Heterotardigrades. This suggests two independent evolutionary transitions from marine to limno-terrestrial environments within the tardigrades.

    Future Directions and Limitations
    While this research significantly advances our understanding of tardigrade extremotolerance, Fleming notes some limitations due to the absence of genomic data from several key tardigrade families. “We unfortunately have no representatives from several important families, such as the Isohypsibiidae, and this does limit how firmly we can stand by our conclusions,” he remarks. The elusive nature of some tardigrades, like Tanarctus bubulubus, further complicates this research. However, Fleming remains optimistic about the future, citing the potential of the Earth Biogenome Project to fill these gaps.

    This study marks a pivotal contribution to our knowledge of tardigrade extremotolerance, laying a foundation for future genomic research in this field. The complexity of gene evolution uncovered in this study highlights the intricacies of adaptation and survival strategies in one of nature's most resilient organisms.

    Original Publication
    James F Fleming, Davide Pisani, Kazuharu Arakawa, The Evolution of Temperature and Desiccation-Related Protein Families in Tardigrada Reveals a Complex Acquisition of Extremotolerance, Genome Biology and Evolution, Volume 16, Issue 1, January 2024, evad217, https://doi.org/10.1093/gbe/evad217

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