A protein produced by one of nature's hardiest creatures, the tardigrade, can shield human DNA from radiation damage
The microscopic tardigrade can survive severe dehydration and the harsh environment of space, and one of the reasons they're particularly durable is a remarkably high resistance to radiation. One protein partly responsible for this protection is called Dsup, and research on human cells has revealed that the same protein can protect our DNA from damage in a similar manner.
“Tolerance against X-ray is thought to be a side-product of [the] animal's adaption to severe dehydration. Protection and repair of DNA is a fundamental component of all cells and a central aspect in many human diseases, including cancer and ageing”
A radiation shield
Dehydration wreaks havoc on DNA, and tardigrades appear to have evolved a strategy to deal with this problem that also provides generalised radiation protection. In a bid to work out what protein was responsible scientists produced groups of human cells - each altered to include certain tardigrade genes. After experimenting on these different groups they eventually arrived at a protein called Dsup. Dsup was able to effectively shield human DNA from X-rays and suppressed damage by around 40%; a massive increase in mutation resistance.
“We are really just at the beginning of exploring the genetic treasure that the tardigrade genome represents”
This research is extremely exciting, both in method and results. If similar proteins can be isolated from organisms with unique capabilities, and that are functional in human cells too, then we potentially have novel therapeutics on our hands. Protecting DNA from mutation is a top priority for the cell, but even with multiple layers of security mutation remains an issue in aging human tissue. If we could find a way to translate this discovery into a human product, then it has fascinating prospects. Any humans travelling in space for prolonged periods of time would require increased radiation resistance, but improving radiation resistance and DNA stability in general is also an important 'anti-aging' strategy - helping to prevent cancer and reduce genomic instability while making us hardier and more optimally designed.
Read more at The Scientific American