Scientists Give Insects Tiny Spacesuits To Protect Them Inside A Vacuum

By Nina Sen , Apr 17, 2013 05:28 PM EDT

Polymer nanosuits can protect insects while they are inside a vacuum, scientists say, allowing the critters to be studied using a scanning electron microscope. The advance could help scientists take high-resolution photographs of tiny living organisms.

In order to capture extreme detail, scientists must use a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which places the subject matter in a vacuum. Any subject in a vacuum, however, will get the moisture sucked right out of it and will die during the process.

Scientist Takahiko Hariyama at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan created a nanosuit that protects insects from the vacuum. The tiny protective layer is similar to a spacesuit. Scientists create the nanosuit by bombarding the insect with electrons. This process causes polymerization, and the molecules link together to form a protective barrier. Scientists have been successful in creating this nanosuit for fruit fly larva.

Hariyama also created a synthetic nanosuit using a combination of the non-toxic chemical Tween 20 and water for insects that don't respond to the electron treatment. The layer, only 50- to 100-billionths of a meter thick, is flexible enough to allow larva to move but can keep the insect alive for about 30 minutes.

According to Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, "The layer acts as a flexible 'nanosuit' barrier to the passage of gases and liquids and thus protects the organism."

The nanosuit will allow highly detailed images of moving insects or even video to be taken. The team of scientists is also hoping the nanosuit can protect an insect from radiation.

The discovery can have many applications in the modern world. The work indicates that creatures with a nanosuit-like barrier might survive travel by a meteorite or comet through the extreme environments of space.

Scientists hope that the application could apply to astronauts and spacecraft which could also be coated in a flexible vacuum and radiation shield similar to the nanosuits.

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