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There's A Filipino Genius at Harvard Blazing a Trail on the Study of 'Tardi Bears'

'Tardi Bears' are some of the toughest animals in the Universe.
IMAGE Marc Mapalo
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Marc “Mackie” Mapalo, 27, is blazing a trail in the field of sciences. He is currently taking up his six-year Ph.D. course on Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Currently, Mapalo is focused on laying the groundwork for the comprehensive molecular study of tardigrades, known as the toughest organism in the Universe. Tardigrades, also known as “tardi bears” owing to their resemblance to teddy bears, can survive in outer space. Although many experiments have been conducted on tardigrades, very little is known about their DNA and the molecular workings of their bodies.

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Marc "Mackie" Mapalo

Photo by Marc Mapalo.
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That is why Mapalo wants to investigate these little creatures, all in the name of the Philippines.

Mapalo has even discovered two new species of tardigrades in the Philippines

“The first one, I named it after the Philippines. It is called Mesobiotus philippinicus. The second one is called Mesobiotus insanis, named for their insanely decorated eggs” Mapalo told Esquire Philippines

Mesobiotus philipinicus, One of Two Tardigrade Species Mapalo Discovered

Photo by Marc Mapalo.
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Mesobiotus insanis, One of Two Tardigrade Species Mapalo Discovered

Photo by Marc Mapalo.

How Mackie Mapalo Was Admitted to Harvard

Mapalo took up B.S. Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of the Philippines in 2014 with a general weighted average of 1.24. He was a scholar there. 

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Mapalo Doing Lab Work

Photo by Marc Mapalo.

Shortly after graduating, he decided to pursue further studies and took up his Master’s degree for the same course, which he finished in 2016. He topped the class with a general weighted average of 1.12. 

In 2016, he was accepted as a scholar in the Erasmus Mundus Master Program in Evolutionary Biology

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He is the only Filipino so far who has attended the prestigious program.

Under the program, he studied for two years in the following universities: 

  • The University of Groningen, Netherlands (September 2016 to January 2017)
  • Ludwig Maximilians University (LMU) Munich, Germany (April to September 2017)
  • Harvard University, USA (September 2017 to February 2018)
  • Uppsala University, Sweden (March to August 2018)

“Ever since high school, I’ve been a scholar. I was lucky because there were only five scholarships given to international students for the Erasmus Mundus Program at the time,” said Mapalo.

“It’s a heavily research-oriented program, and if it weren’t for this program, I wouldn’t have been accepted into Harvard.”

Mapalo proudly wears his Harvard T-shirt in front of the John Harvard statue.

Photo by Marc Mapalo.
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Mapalo’s Work on Tardigrade Fossils

As a molecular biologist and paleontologist, Mapalo says he has chosen to focus on tardigrades. According to him, it is common for biologists to be an expert on a specialty organism.

Mapalo’s Tardigrade Inside an Amber 

Photo by Marc Mapalo.

According to Mapalo, there are 1,330 species of tardigrades, but only few are known to undergo a state of dispause or cryptobiosis when they experience stress. It is a stasis-like phase in which their metabolism slows down to almost a standstill, rendering them inactive until they are revived again.

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The “stress” is usually waterloss, but scientists tested if these tardigrades can survive in space in such a state. They can.

Currently, Mapalo is studying the evolution of tardigrades using a fossil stored at Harvard. The fossil, encased in amber, has been around for many years, but it was not properly imaged due to the limitations of technology at the time it was discovered.

“Microscopes back in the day weren’t as powerful as those we have today, which is why now, we can properly image the tardigrade in the amber,” said Mapalo.

As a molecular evolutionary biologist, Mapalo and his work could have significant insight into how the human body can adapt to changes in the environment, including climate change. 

 

Cloning Dinosaurs From Fossils

As a molecular biologist and evolutionary scientist, a lot of people ask Mapalo the burning question: Can we clone dinosaurs?

A Prehistoric Insect Trapped in Amber

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Photo by Zacharie Grossen / Public Domain.

“Prior to coming to Harvard, I did work on ancient DNA in a lab,” said Mapalo. “What we do there is to actually extract DNA from very, very old samples that are thousands of years old.

“But the thing is, a DNA taken from just a thousand-year-old human bone is extremely hard to get because it is already very fragmented. So imagine if the DNA would come from a million-year-old bone.” 

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It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, it’s just that no perfectly preserved dinosaur DNA has ever presented itself for the purpose. 

So, sorry, Jurassic Park fans, no cloning dinosaurs at the moment. 

But What About Aliens? Does Mapalo Think They Exist?

If we can’t have dinosaurs, maybe we could have aliens. Mapalo weighs in on the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life. 

“I think there is extraterrestrial life out there. I mean, the universe is just so vast. There's still a chance even how slim it is... but I don't think it's identical to what we have now,” said Mapalo.

He explains his thoughts through the lens of Evolutionary Biology.

“According to the Contingency Theory, if you rewind the tape of life and then unwind it, the final product would be different.

Mapalo also mentioned evolutionary determinism, whose proponents say that we can predict the types of organisms that will evolve in the future because their traits are determined by their environment or their parents.

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“But personally for me, it would be more interesting if we found alien life that is different from what we have on Earth because it leads to more questions: How are they not similar to us, what is their biology. If they’re similar, you kind of know what happened in their evolution. If it’s different, there are more questions about them.”

Marc Mapalo Outside the Harvard University Museum

Photo by Marc Mapalo.
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Marc Mapalo would like to thank the Pinoy Scientists Facebook page for promoting Filipino scientists. The page aims to inform people about the outstanding work and dedication of Filipino scientists whose works are often overlooked.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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