Baker University research of microscopic animals allows students to fill in a ‘blank part of the tree of life’

photo by: Contributed photo

This image shows a tardigrade, a microscopic animal that can live in water and moss. Baker University students study the animals, which are known as “water bears” because of their bear-like appearance.

Years of searching for and studying microscopic animals has allowed student researchers at Baker University to find a scientific niche for themselves, not to mention a list of discoveries.

William Miller, director of research of biology and chemistry at Baker, has for several years led research projects looking into tardigrades in Kansas. Tardigrades, which are referred to as “water bears” because of their similar appearance, are microscopic animals that can live in salt water, fresh water and “aquatic environments on land,” such as wet moss.

The research teams have studied tardigrades because there is little known about them, which has allowed his students to help fill in “that blank part of the tree of life,” Miller said. Currently, about 1,200 to 1,300 different species of tardigrade have been discovered, which Miller said is actually a very small amount of species for a certain animal.

“There’s still so much that we don’t know since we’re just cutting the surface of the diversity and distribution of what animals exist where,” he said. “There’s still so many questions that we would love to get to, which is part of what makes it such a great organism for students to work with.”

Some of the recent discoveries of the research teams include finding new species of tardigrade in the Baker Wetlands study area, which is just south of Lawrence, specifically tardigrades that live in moss on trees. The discovery was the first time anyone had found the species of tardigrade in Kansas, Miller said.

Additionally, the research team has found three previously unknown species and three or four possible new species that are still awaiting confirmation, he said.

“The projects have been quite successful,” he said.

The most recent discovery, which was explained in a study published in 2018, uses evidence to theorize how tardigrades travel around the world, Miller said.

Previously, scientists have theorized “for a couple hundred years” that tardigrades moved around the world through the wind. However, Miller said that theory did not include any evidence and was more a hunch. It also did not explain how some of the tardigrade species Miller’s teams found in Kansas were native to Argentina.

“The winds don’t blow from South America to Kansas,” he said. “Major wind does not cross the equator. So how does an organism get between the north and south hemisphere when it can’t walk and it can’t fly?”

Miller said he speculated about birds serving as a transport vehicle for the animals, but he made a breakthrough on debunking the wind theory when a hummingbird died on his property. He chose to examine the bird through dipping its body in water and siphoning off samples. Eventually he found tardigrades within the water samples.

The research team began doing more studies of dead birds, finding tardigrades on 70% of them, which was published in the study, Miller said. The group plans to continue to study birds to find further evidence to support the theory.

Studying these tiny animals has helped students realize just how much is still unknown about the world. Alex Young, who participated in two summer research programs at the university, said he was part of the group that researched moss and lichen on top of trees in the wetlands, where some of the tardigrades were found.

“It was incredible,” Young said of the program. “It opened my world to the microscopic cosmos.”

Young did not attend Baker University but served as an intern in the research program. He recently received his master’s degree from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He credits the program as a catalyst that furthered his interest in science.

“There is this whole new world inside of this moss, which we don’t have a great idea of what is there,” Young said. “There are still whole new worlds to explore in these wonderful forests that we have.”

Miller said part of the reason tardigrades are not well researched in the scientific world is because they do not have a lot of “economic value.” Other animals with that type of value are expected to either help or hurt human life, such as possibly causing disease or help curing disease. Tardigrades, however, likely don’t do either.

“It makes funding difficult when you are competing with people who are trying to save the world,” Miller said.

But Miller was able to get funding for his project from the National Science Foundation. The lack of interest from other scientists has also been an advantage for the Baker program, allowing the students to research unknown areas of science with less competition.

“The animal does have a place in the ecological cycle of the planet,” he said, noting that they eat other, smaller microscopic animals. “They are probably a big part of the control mechanism that keeps the balance in soils, moss and lichen, which covers lots of the planet.

“They are part of the cycle of life,” he added.

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