Science Word of the Week: Cryptobiosis

As a human, I enjoy being comfortable. I enjoy relaxing at home where the temperature is just right and food and water are always at the ready. I enjoy being comfortable so much that sometimes I even have nightmares of extremely uncomfortable (and life-threatening) conditions. Suffocating in the dark hole of space, freezing to death on a snowy, lifeless mountain, or deadly dehydration after being lost in a desert are some of my nightmares. I am pretty sure I am not alone in fearing suffocation, being a human Popsicle, or drying out. But there are organisms out there that live a life of discomfort, in fact they rely on it for survival. Some creatures can undergo a process known as “cryptobiosis.” In this physical state, the organism’s metabolic activity drops to incredibly low levels. In fact, they should call this physical state “everything but dead” since they are unable to move, reproduce, grow, or develop in this state. But the key is that they are still technically ‘alive.’ When living conditions become very uncomfortable: such as in freezing temperatures, or bone dry deserts, or oxygen-less environments, these creatures can survive in a “cryptobiotic” state for a long time (sometimes multiple years) until conditions become ‘comfortable’ again. These organisms rely on this adaptation for survival since predators or other competition could not survive such uncomfortable conditions at all. Many unexpectedly hardy creatures utilize cryptobiosis as a strategy for survival, including tardigrades, brine shrimp, fairy shrimp, rotifers, and many plant species. While you are reading this article in the comforts of your own home, there is an organism out there somewhere surviving in the most uncomfortable of conditions using cryptobiosis as their saving grace.

THANK YOU for reading! Please comment below and let me know how I am doing to help you see your world through the intriguing lens of science.


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