Tardigrades are microscopic animals found worldwide in aquatic as well as terrestrial ecosystems. They belong to the invertebrate superclade Ecdysozoa, as do the two major invertebrate model organisms: Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster. We present a brief description of the tardigrades and highlight species that are currently used as models for physiological and molecular investigations. Tardigrades are uniquely adapted to a range of environmental extremes. Cryptobiosis, currently referred to as a reversible ametabolic state induced by e.g. desiccation, is common especially among limno-terrestrial species. It has been shown that the entry and exit of cryptobiosis may involve synthesis of bioprotectants in the form of selective carbohydrates and proteins as well as high levels of antioxidant enzymes and other free radical scavengers. However, at present a general scheme of mechanisms explaining this phenomenon is lacking. Importantly, recent research has shown that tardigrades even in their active states may be extremely tolerant to environmental stress, handling extreme levels of ionizing radiation, large fluctuation in external salinity and avoiding freezing by supercooling to below -20 °C, presumably relying on efficient DNA repair mechanisms and osmoregulation. This review summarizes the current knowledge on adaptations found among tardigrades, and presents new data on tardigrade cell numbers and osmoregulation.
© 2011 The Authors. Acta Physiologica © 2011 Scandinavian Physiological Society.