'Super Leech' Is Capable Of Surviving -130 Degree Temperatures For 32 Months, Could Advance Cryopreservation Research

By Josh Lieberman on January 28, 2014 6:27 PM EST

super leech
The "super leech" Ozobranchus jantseanus can survive in extremely frigid temperatures. Studying the parasite could advance cryopreservation research. (Photo: PLoS One)

As if leeches weren't creepy enough, scientists have discovered that a "super leech"--more formally known as the ozobranchid leech--can survive temperatures of minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 32 months. In a research article in PLoS One, a team of Japanese researchers subjected Ozobranchus jantseanus to a series of extremely cold environments along with six other types of leeches. Though some of the leech species were able to survive minus 130 degree temperatures for 24 hours, only the rugged super leech was able to survive submersion in minus-320-degree liquid nitrogen for longer than a day.

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"Ozobranchid leeches have a mysterious mechanism to prevent freezing," said Takahiro Kikawada, a researcher at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Japan. "I want to get to the heart of the matter."

The one-centimeter super leech was first discovered on pond turtles, which the parasite latches onto for up to 11 days in frigid waters. Its super-resistance to cold temperatures was discovered accidentally, when researchers thawed out a Reeve's pond turtle which had been frozen at minus 112 degrees for six months, only to find that super leeches frozen on the turtle became reanimated.   

"It is unlikely that O. jantseanus would encounter similar freeze-thaw cycles in its natural environment," the researchers write. "[I]t is suggested that the cold tolerance observed in this species has not arisen in response to some ecological need or that it is an environmental adaptation. Rather, it is likely that this cryotolerant ability has arisen in response to some as yet unclarified adaptation."

Figuring out how the super leech withstands such unfathomably cold temperatures could advance cryopreservation, the science of preserving cells, tissues and organs in freezing temperatures. Because the super leech is capable of not only surviving such cold temperatures "without any acclimation period or pretreatment" and can endure repeated freezings and thaws, the researchers are particularly hopeful about its possible contributions to cryopreservation research. 

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