The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Kinchin

Survival in extreme environments

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By Ian Kinchin

When I was actively researching biology (rather than education), a high point for me was when I was able to contribute to the naming of a new species (Bertolani and Kinchin, 1993). That was quite a buzz, and i still have a strange affection for Ramazzottius varieornatus – even though almost nobody has ever heard of it.

The Tardigrada is a particularly fascinating group of invertebrate animals. Whilst tardigrades are basically aquatic animals, they are able to survive periods of drought by desiccating their bodies. When in this dry, dormant state, their bodies are extremely resistant to environmental extremes that would normally be fatal. The animals can stay in this state of suspended animation – described as anhydrobiosis (life without water) or cryptobiosis (hidden life) – for months or even years (see Mobjerg et al, 2011; Welnicz et al, 2011). Once favourable environmental conditions are restored, the animals are able to rehydrate and continue their lives.

A while ago I discovered that ‘my’ species had been the subject of research by others working in association with NASA, looking at biology in space (Horikawa, 2008). So perhaps I hadn’t been involved in rocket science, but in some tenuous way, my work was linked to work that might one day contribute to intergalactic space travel – well you have to dream a little.

What this has made me think about is the possible analogy of the survival of universities in inhospitable environments. What do universities do when the economic or political environment becomes less favourable? Do they behave like tardigrades and enter a dormant state of cryptobiosis, or do they evolve with the environment? What are the environmental selection pressures that make universities change? How have universities changed in response to the environment? When is the pace of university change the greatest – during the ‘hard times’ or the ‘good times’?

One of the results of the tardigrade strategy of avoiding environmental extremes is that they have changed little over time – fossil tardigrades are almost identical to their modern relatives. So how has the modern university changed from its ancestral relative? Illuminated manuscripts depicting the medieval university show the teacher with the book standing at a lecturn and reading to a large gathering of students sitting passively in rows. If a student from those times had been cryptobiotic for the past four hundred years and suddenly awoke in a modern university what would be the ten biggest changes they would notice?

Answers on a postcard to ‘cryptobiotic university competition’ ………..


Bertolani, R. and Kinchin, I.M. (1993) A new species of Ramazzottius (Tardigrada, Hypsibiidae) in a rain gutter sediment from England. ZoologicalJournal of the Linnean Society, London, 109: 327 – 333.

Horikawa, D.D. (2008) The tardigrade Ramazzottius varieornatus as a model animal for astrobiological studies. Biological Sciences in Space, 22(3): 93 – 98.

Mobjerg, N., Halberg, K.A., Jorgensen, A., Persson, D., Bjorn, M., Ramlov, H. and Kristensen, R.M. (2011) Survival in extreme envioronments – on the current knowledge of adaptations in tardigrades. Acta Physiologica, 202: 409 – 420.

Welnicz, W., Grohne, M.A., Kaczmarek, L., Schill, R.O. and Frohme, M. (2011) Anhydrobiosis in tardigrades – The last decade. Journal of Insect Physiology, 57: 577 – 583.

Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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