How a ‘nano-suit’ will let you survive in a vacuum (if you’re a bug)

Attention, future astronauts: this could someday let you survive in the vacuum of space
April 25, 2013

Nano-suit: images of a larva protected by electron-beam-irradiated Tween 20 solution. The small white square in C is shown magnified (D), with high resolution. [Scale bars: 0.3 mm (C) and 1 μm (D)]

Put a fruit fly larva in a spacelike vacuum, and within minutes, the animal will collapse into a crinkled, lifeless husk.

Now, researchers have found a way to protect the bugs: bombard them with electrons, which form a “nano-suit” around their bodies, according to an open-access paper in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The advance could help scientists take high-resolution photographs of tiny living organisms, says Science Now.. It also suggests a new way that creatures could survive the harsh conditions of outer space and may even lead to new space travel technology for humans.

A miniature spacesuit

When Takahiko Hariyama of the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan and his colleagues placed the millimeter-sized larva in a scanning electron microscope and fired electrons at it, they found that the young fly wiggled in place for an hour as if everything was fine.

The scientists then used the microscope to peer closely at the edge of the insects’ skin. They found that the energy from the electrons changed the thin film on the larvae’s skin, causing its molecules to link together — a process called polymerization. The result was a layer — only 50- to 100-billionths of a meter thick — that was flexible enough to allow the larva to move, but solid enough to keep its gasses and liquids from escaping. ”

The team dubbed the layers “nano-suits.”

Most insects do not have natural layers on their surfaces that become nano-suits when exposed to an electron stream, however. So Hariyama and colleagues decided to create artificial nano-suits. They dunked mosquito larvae in a pool of water mixed with a chemical called Tween 20, which is useful because it’s not toxic and is commonly found in detergents, cosmetics, and hard candy. The researchers then showered each larva in plasma, so that the Tween 20 would polymerize and become a nano-suit, and moved the nano-suited larvae to the microscope’s vacuum to watch what happened.

Mosquito larvae wearing the artificial nano-suit could handle the vacuum for about 30 minutes, the team reports in PNAS.

The researchers repeated the experiment with other insects, including flatworms, ants, and sand hoppers, and the manmade nano-suit protected them all.

The finding is “exciting,” says astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who was not involved in the work, because it indicates that nano-suited creatures might survive travel by a meteorite or comet through the extreme environments of space.

She notes that it could also have applications for space travel. “Imagine a flexible space shield, roughly the diameter of a human hair that could protect against dehydration and radiation.”