Baker gets grant to study microscopic ‘water bear’

The microscopic tardigrade, also called a water

Water bears

Tiny animal, big grant.

The microscopic tardigrade – or “water bear” – is at the center of a $600,000 grant Baker University has received from the National Science Foundation. For the next four years, Baker students will be involved in collecting samples of the animal from sites across the country, sequencing their DNA and comparing the animals’ physical characteristics with their genetic makeup.

Tardigrades are about the size of a speck of dust. They’re known for their ability to survive extreme conditions – including heat, cold and high doses of radiation – by drying up, shrinking to about a third of their normal size and ceasing virtually all life functions.

They can stay in that state for more than a decade and still come out alive. The animal lives in all kinds of environments, including in fresh water, mosses and the leafy muck that accumulates in rain gutters.

“It’s capable of surviving almost every condition” on Earth, said Randy Miller, an assistant professor of biology at Baker who is the lead researcher on the project.

Miller, 62, a Chanute native, has studied tardigrades for more than 40 years.

“For me it’s a tremendous teaching tool,” he said. “I can walk out and scrape something off the side of a tree, and in an hour or so have specimens to show students.”

Miller said awards from the National Science Foundation “normally don’t go to people at small schools.”

“This is the sort of thing that KU or the Natural History Museum gets,” he said.

The grant will be shared with three other institutions: Fresno City College, Brigham Young University and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Miller also is working on a research paper with two Baker students, Henry Dawson and Trey Ammons, who last fall helped discover a new species of tardigrade that’s found on the Baker campus. The name of the species – which isn’t official yet because it hasn’t been published – is likely to make reference to Baker.

“We hope to find two, three hundred species in the United States” in coming years, Miller said. “There’s only about 120 recorded right now. We hope to really expand the diversity that’s known from the continent.”

Baker also recently received a $600,000, three-year grant from the Hall Family Foundation to develop a general education program.

Rob Flaherty, acting associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement that the grant will help “provide a unique and valuable learning experience for all Baker students.”