Researchers have discovered a Japanese species of leech capable of withstanding extreme freezing temperatures, possibly paving the way for advances in cryogenics.
The study, by a team of researchers at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology and the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, showed that the ozobranchid leech, a 1-centimeter parasite found on freshwater turtles such as the Japanese pond turtle and Reeve’s pond turtle, survived exposure to temperatures down to 196 degrees below zero. It was published in the U.S. online journal Plos One on Jan. 22,
“Ozobranchid leeches have a mysterious mechanism to prevent freezing. I want to get to the heart of the matter,” said Takahiro Kikawada, a researcher at NIAS.
If the team solves the mystery, the research could prove useful in the area of medical technology such as the cryopreservation of cells and organs, they said.
Finding the leech’s special ability came about accidentally while the researchers were studying turtles.
After thawing out a specimen of a Reeve's pond turtle, which had been in storage at minus 80 degrees for six months, a researcher noticed leeches that had been stuck to the reptile springing back to life.
Experiments on the creature’s tolerance found the leech survived storage in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196 degrees for 24 hours.
The researchers also found the leeches survived storage at temperatures as low as minus 90 degrees for more than two years and six months.
Creatures like water bears are known to withstand extremely low temperatures through a near complete loss of body water in order to prevent the damage caused by the water in cells as it freezes.
On the other hand, ozobranchid leeches are capable of enduring ultra-low temperatures with water present in the body, the researchers found.
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