Behold, the tardigrade.
It is about 1/3 the size of a head of a pin, but SEM microscope pictures reveal it to be a pokemon-esque monster with stubby legs, a circular mouth, and teeny bear claws.
The tardigrade, or water bear, can survive temperatures from barely above absolute zero to higher than 100 degrees celsius. Deprive a water bear of food or water for 10 years, and it'll happily rehydrate, have lunch, and find a mate (except for the species who are parthenogenic, which can reproduce without fertilization). Blast it with 1,000 times the amount of radiation required to instantly kill a human, and it barely notices. Throw it into a high-pressure chamber with 1200 times our atmospheric pressure, and it yawns in boredom.
Launch it into the vacuum of space… and the water bear doesn't care.
It’s unbelievable resilience is reminiscent of the great Rasputin, who was stabbed, poisoned, shot multiple times, and tossed into a river before he finally died… from drowning. Like Rasputin, the tardigrade can handle almost anything. Its resilience is made even more amazing by one fact: it has a brain, and its brain emerges unscathed from a variety of seemingly intolerable conditions (did I mention they can survive the vacuum of space?) Researchers are busy investigating what aspects of their life history and morphology make water bears so tough.
So far, they have discovered that some species of tardigrade produce a sugar called trehalose, which forms a glassy surface that can act as a stand-in for water. (This helps explain why tardigrades withstand freezing temperatures with no problem). There must be more to the picture, though; with further research to unlock the secrets of the tardigrade, perhaps their superpowers could be applied to cryogenic freezing or interstellar travel, making science fiction a reality.
As is so often the case, nature is one step ahead of us, dwarfing our greatest feats of engineering. It is hard to compete with 3.8 billion years of evolution, but we can certainly learn from it!
And so it could be that the water bear’s incredible feats of survival may simply stem from a tough life in the dirt. But there’s also the question of how it does this, and it’s a perplexing one at that. Goldstein’s lab is researching this, and he reckons that water bears don’t just have one simple trick, but a range of strategies to be able to endure drying out and eventually reanimating.