Monday, 25 September, 2017

Earth's hardiest species likely to survive 'until the Sun dies'

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Frank Williams | 15 July, 2017, 02:43

While humans are beginning to figure out how to get the hell off this planet we're destroying, these tiny water bear creatures called tardigrades have evidently been evolving to survive whatever earthly calamity comes their way. The water-dwelling micro animal can live for up to 60 years, and grow to a maximum size of 0.5mm, best seen under a microscope. There are more than 1,000 different species of tardigrades, and though some have evolved to survive in ridiculous conditions, it's not as if each tardigrade can survive an extreme dose of radiation. They can survive for up to 30 years without food or water.

Boffins found the eight-legged marvel would survive asteroids hitting Earth, exploding stars and even gamma ray bursts.

In their study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers conclude that the only way the tardigrades could be wiped out is if Earth's oceans are boiled away. There are few asteroids in our Solar System large enough that they would boil away Earth's water if they struck our planet, reports Giorgia Guglielmi for Science, and none of them are heading anywhere Earth.

Researchers from Oxford could find little or no way to eliminate them from Earth, predicting a lifetime of around 10bn years. Therefore it seems that life, once it gets going, is hard to wipe out entirely.

So when that next mass extinction happens, it might be up to tardigrades to ensure life goes on.

He said: "Tardigrades are as close to indestructible as it gets on Earth, but it is possible that there are other resilient species examples elsewhere in the universe".

The study continues: "To establish this we break from the usual study in the literature of the possible paths to ending human life, and broaden the analysis to consider those astrophysical events which could rather remove all life by analysing the most resilient of species-tardigrades".

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Almost three-quarters of all life on Earth was wiped out 65 million years ago, and if the math is accurate, we're due for another mass extinction in a few million years. But life that lived below ground or in large bodies of water would be shielded from harm and could survive, including the tardigrade. These explosions occur when enormous stars collapse or neutron stars collide; they're even rarer than supernovae, and astronomers have only seen them in distant galaxies. To be able to boil the world's oceans the burst would need to be no more than 40 light-years away, and the likelihood of a burst occurring so close is again, minor.

Finally there are gamma-ray bursts, mysterious explosions producing enormous amounts of energy focused into jets of radiation as narrow as a couple of degrees.

"Because [tardigrades] are so hardy it means that events that we are anxious about as human beings, and rightly so, certainly wouldn't concern you if you just considered all life", he told The Guardian. Will there be any form of life left? "The history of Mars indicates that it once had an atmosphere that could have supported life, albeit under extreme conditions". The tardigrade deemed to be an ultimate survivor on the Earth.

"Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically".

"The discovery of extremophiles in such locations would be a significant step forward in bracketing the range of conditions for life to exist on planets around other stars". Since then more than 3,000 planets have been found outside our solar system, and it's thought that around 20% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet in their habitable zones.

"Without our technology protecting us, humans are a very sensitive species", he said.

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