Scientists at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan have come up with a special kind of spacesuit that can help keep insects alive in a vacuum. Unlike the gear astronauts wear, the nano-suit — as scientists are calling it — is more than 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, and it’s made using electrons.
How did they do it? Researchers first tried out the technique on Drosophila larvae (the species commonly known as the fruit fly), which are coated in a thin film composed of extracellular substances (ECS). When scientists bombarded the larvae with electrons they found that the ECS fused together into a polymer barrier that was between 50 and 100 nanometers thick. The barrier acted as protection, holding in moisture and gases, while still allowing the larvae to move around. While specimens that were not protected by the polymer barrier quickly shriveled up and died, larvae coated in the nano-suits survived up to 60 minutes in the vacuum. Once they were removed from the vacuum, they proceeded to develop normally, with seemingly no ill effects.
The scientists were able to get the technique to work on other kinds of insect larvae as well, including mosquitoes, ants and flatworms. Since these insects lack the ECM that fruit flies have, scientists coated them with Tween 20 – a non-toxic compound that can be found in a number of products including detergents and candy – before they exposed them to the electron stream. (For more details about the experiment, you can read the paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Scientists.)
This clever discovery came about not as part of a plan to send fruit flies into space, but as a way to help researchers make images of tiny organisms. In order to examine a fruit fly’s proboscis, say, or its cells, scientists need to use a scanning electron microscope, which works by using a vacuum. The microscope allows researchers to view specimens at a high resolution, but it has two serious disadvantages. The first is that the vacuum kills living organisms quickly by sucking all the moisture out of them. The second is that this extreme dehydration causes the bodies of specimens to desiccate and crumple up, making it difficult for scientists to determine what they looked like in their original state.
And the research has sparked interest among certain astrobiologists. Lynn Rothschild at NASA’s Ames Research Center called the find “exciting” and said the find could have applications for future space travel. Although astronauts won’t be trading in their spacesuits any time soon.
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