Research: Metabolism in human cells can be slowed down by introduced tardigrade proteins

The processes that tardigrades utilize to enter and escape suspended animation in response to environmental stress.

Researchers at the University of Wyoming have demonstrated that proteins from the microscopic organisms produced in human cells may slow down molecular processes, providing more insight into how tardigrades endure harsh environments.

For this reason, the tardigrade proteins are promising candidates for long-term human cell preservation and aging-delaying technologies.

The processes that tardigrades utilize to enter and escape suspended animation in response to environmental stress are examined in a recent study that was published in the journal Protein Science. Under the direction of Senior Research Scientist Silvia Sanchez-Martinez in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Thomas Boothby of the UW Department of Molecular Biology, the study offers more proof that tardigrade proteins may one day be used to improve the storage of cell-based therapies like stem cells and provide access to life-saving treatments for those in areas where refrigeration is not possible.

Tardigrades, also called water bears, are tiny animals that are less than half a millimetre long. They can withstand extreme temperatures and even the vacuum of space. They can also withstand being completely dried out, frozen to a temperature just above absolute zero (minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, when all molecular motion ceases), heated to a temperature higher than 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and exposed to radiation thousands of times higher than humans could tolerate.

According to a recent study done by the University of Washington, they enter a state of suspended animation known as biostasis, employing proteins that create gels inside of cells and slow down life processes. The University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of California-Merced, the University of Bologna in Italy, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands are among the universities where co-authors of the study are affiliated.

The principal author of the work was Sanchez-Martinez, who joined Boothby’s UW group from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Amazingly, when we introduce these proteins into human cells, they gel and slow down metabolism, just like in tardigrades.

Furthermore, just like tardigrades, when you put human cells that have these proteins into biostasis, they become more resistant to stresses, conferring some of the tardigrades’ abilities to the human cells.


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When the stress is relieved, the tardigrade gels dissolve, and the human cells return to their normal metabolism.

Our findings provide an avenue for pursuing technologies centered on the induction of biostasis in cells and even whole organisms to slow aging and enhance storage and stability.

Thomas Boothby

A vital medication used to treat patients with haemophilia and other disorders may be stabilised using natural and manufactured forms of tardigrade proteins, according to earlier research by Boothby’s team, without the need for refrigeration.

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Scientists have been baffled by tardigrades’ capacity to withstand drying out since they exhibit a behaviour that seems distinct from that of several other species that may enter suspended animation.

Source: University of Wyoming News

Journal Reference: Sanchez-Martinez, S., et al. “Labile Assembly of a Tardigrade Protein Induces Biostasis.” Protein Science, vol. 33, no. 4, 2024, p. e4941,

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