Many terrestrial tardigrade (aka waterbear or moss piglet) species live in the thin, temporary films of water surrounding moss plants with which they share the remarkable ability to survive near complete desiccation. Furthermore, in their desiccated states, tardigrades can withstand the temperature extremes and ionizing radiation typically found in Space. This project investigates how both tardigrades and the mosses they inhabit are able to tolerate periodic desiccation and aims to understand how traits important in desiccation tolerance have evolved in both groups. This CAREER project offers exceptional opportunities for student engagement in research and aims to train diverse, budding scientists in integrative and collaborative biodiversity research to increase retention of students from groups typically underrepresented in STEM disciplines. The project also aims to increase K-12 and community participation in science. Understanding the diversity of mechanisms that organisms such as tardigrades and mosses have evolved to deal with drying, from the molecular level through to ecological interactions with other organisms, has practical implications for understanding and managing desiccation resistance in crops and other organisms.
In-depth molecular studies reveal tremendous genetic variation underlying desiccation resistance in different tardigrade lineages but the phenotypic and ecological interactions generating desiccation-resistance traits have received scant attention. The central research question of this proposal asks how interaction and coevolution with moss hosts drive functional desiccation-resistant trait evolution in terrestrial tardigrades. The project integrates within-species genomic, biochemical, cytological, and morphometric analysis of the joint tardigrade / moss desiccation response with across-species phylogenetic comparative analysis to discover how tardigrade functional desiccation resistance traits evolve in the context of their moss habitats.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.