As anyone who has walked down a Havana street in the heat of the evening or attended an away football(‘soccer’) match with a rival team can attest, there can be safety in numbers. A similar principle applies to gene codes. It is the scientific basis behind the fact that mixed breed dogs are, in general, healthier than purebreds. The blend of different genetic codes is a great advantage when it comes to genetic conditions, limiting the risk of the individual animal getting conditions common in one breed or another. Much of such genetic mixing is intentional, though processes such as the sort of cross-breeding that eventually turned smaller, tamer wolves into poodles and Saint Bernards.

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As it turns out, there can also be power in numbers when it comes to genetics and such blending can also happen naturally and even unintentionally without any intervention or involvement by humans or evolution. It has now turned out that it can happen at an ever higher rate than we ever thought before, with the recent genetic sequencing of the tradigrade, better know by the much cuter name of “Water Bear”.

The what?

Not really well known outside the realm of biology geeks, water bears are a very tiny (a scant 1mm long) aquatic animal, that looks sort of like a soft, pink,eight-legged ant-eater. It turns out that this oddly cute little weirdo has abilities that have not been found in any other known species. Feats such as being able to survive temperatures just as quint about absolute zero as well as some past the boiling point of water. Oh right, it is also the only living thing currently existing on earth that could even potentially survive, unprotected, in the cold, dark, vacuum of space. Someone should look into getting these things some little capes, they are the closest thing the world has to being invincible.

The secret of the water bears success

This odd looking little thing has a feature unseen in any other creature yet found on Earth. Its genome is made up of a higher number of foreign elements than any other species, a process known as horizontal gene transfer which is naturally occurring process by which a species takes on genetic features of one or more other species, rather than being obtained through the more usual process of reproduction. This is something that happens only rarely in humans, as well as, lower species of animals mostly through an exchange of genetic material by way of contagious viruses.

The majority of animal species have genetic code containing at most 1% of genes outside their own species. Before the code mapping was done on the genome of the “Water Bear”, the recognized champion for most foreign DNA was the rotifer, which also lives in the water, pointing to some sort of trend, which had a total of 9% which, to be fair is still extremely high. The undisputed champion of the foreign gene competition is, undoubtedly the tradigrade, who’s genetic code contains some 6,000 foreign elements, adding up to roughly 17.5%.

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Trevor McNeil spent much of his childhood playing video-games on early-form personal computers back when the disks were literally floppy. He attended the University of Victoria, completing a degree in Social Science with a concentration in Technology In Society, while also writing for the campus newspaper. He has written articles for such diverse publications as Humanity Death Watch, PopMatters and Perfect Sound Forever. He is a veteran of numerous “watershed moments” in the history of technological development and firmly believes that Han shot first.

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