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Scientists Create “Nano-Suits” That Allow Bugs to Survive in A Vacuum

NGS Picture ID:1034783


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.

For all the latest science news, check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.




  1. Alyson Foster
    April 18, 2013, 3:12 pm

    Thanks everyone for the clarifications re. plasma. Post has been updated.

  2. rocketride
    Upstate New York
    April 18, 2013, 1:53 pm

    @ Ryan @ Steve

    In fact, the biological usage is the original one.

  3. Martin
    Syracuse, NY
    April 18, 2013, 1:52 pm

    @ Ryan: While you are right that there are things like blood plasma , Steve is also right in pointing out that Tween 20 is by no known definition a ‘plasma’ . Its just a little molecule that could be classified as detergent. Calling it a ‘plasma’ is an obvious error in the article that should have been caught before print.

  4. UncleJohn
    April 18, 2013, 1:35 pm

    Great – now we can have mosquitoes in space.

  5. Ryan
    United States
    April 18, 2013, 12:57 pm

    Steve: The term Plasma or Plasm is used in biological settings not just physics. For instance: blood plasma, the yellow-colored liquid component of blood, in which blood cells are suspended.

  6. Luis Mercado
    Orlando Fl
    April 18, 2013, 12:52 pm

    All is well, if after the experiments kill them and not let them escape. (Killer BEES)

  7. trekkie1
    April 18, 2013, 12:50 pm

    This was invented long ago on star trek the animated series. The crew used thier nano suits to live underwater

  8. Joe
    April 18, 2013, 12:48 pm

    A number of errors in this article – Aside from the Tween 20, what is ECM? Also shows a lack of understanding of how scanning electron microscopes work or how samples are prepared.

  9. Steve
    Seattle, WA
    April 18, 2013, 11:57 am

    Tween 20 is not a plasma! It is a surfactant, used to make detergents and emulsifiers. A plasma is an ionized gas, such as the outer atmosphere or the inside of a fluorescent light bulb.

  10. BCP
    April 18, 2013, 11:43 am

    What does the photo have to do with the story?