A group of Irish-based scientists have discovered a new breed of ‘water bear’, a microscopic animal which is common on earth but can also exist high above sea-level.
The lead researcher of the project is Dr Davide Pisani is an evolutionary biologist at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth.
Funded by the Science Foundation Ireland and NASA, the project analyzed hereditary data from 33 different species of water bears.
These animals have existed for more than 600 million years. The Maynooth research team found that the water-bears are related to insects and crustaceans. Scientists had previously thought they were related to roundworms.
Water bears can survive in extreme conditions - from 6,000 meters above sea level to 4,000 meters under water.
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Dr Pisani said: "The research has the potential to lead to a greater knowledge of how organisms can survive in space, the more effective combating of parasites, and better methods to protect useful animals such as lobsters or honeybees.
"We knew that by focusing on the tardigrades we would be studying the most challenging species possible in terms of their genomic characters and the most difficult to analyse and classify as they evolve very fast."
He added: "Their genetic make-up changes faster than those of other animals, which led to false assumptions in the past about where they came from. It has been a commonly held belief that tardigrades were related to nemotodes or roundworms but our research has conclusively proven this to be incorrect and that they are in fact the sister group of arthropods such as insects or crustaceans."