Resurrecting Van Leeuwenhoek's rotifers: a reappraisal of the role of disaccharides in anhydrobiosis

A. Tunnacliffe, J. Lapinski


In 1702, Van Leeuwenhoek was the first to describe the phenomenon of anhydrobiosis in a species of bdelloid rotifer, Philodina roseola. It is the purpose of this review to examine what has been learned since then about the extreme desiccation tolerance in rotifers and how this compares with our understanding of anhydrobiosis in other organisms. Remarkably, much of what is known today about the requirements for successful anhydrobiosis, and the degree of biostability conferred by the dry state, was already determined in principle by the time of Spallanzani in the late 18th century. Most modern research on anhydrobiosis has emphasized the importance of the non–reducing disaccharides trehalose and sucrose, one or other sugar being present at high concentrations during desiccation of anhydrobiotic nematodes, brine shrimp cysts, bakers' yeast, resurrection plants and plant seeds. These sugars are proposed to act as water replacement molecules, and as thermodynamic and kinetic stabilizers of biomolecules and membranes. In apparent contradiction of the prevailing models, recent experiments from our laboratory show that bdelloid rotifers undergo anhydrobiosis without producing trehalose or any analogous molecule. This has prompted us to critically re–examine the association of disaccharides with anhydrobiosis in the literature. Surprisingly, current hypotheses are based almost entirely on in vitro data: there is very limited information which is more than simply correlative in the literature on living systems. In many species, disaccharide accumulation occurs at approximately the same time as desiccation tolerance is acquired. However, several studies indicate that these sugars are not sufficient for anhydrobiosis; furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence, through mutagenesis or functional knockout experiments, for example, that sugars are necessary for anhydrobiosis. Indeed, some plant seeds and micro–organisms, like the rotifer, exhibit excellent desiccation tolerance in the absence of high intracellular sugar concentrations. Accordingly, it seems appropriate to call for a re–evaluation of our understanding of anhydrobiosis and to embark on new experimental programmes to determine the key molecular mechanisms involved.