There are very few organisms that can survive in a vacuum, and usually fruit fly larvae are not one of them.
But almost by accident, researchers have discovered a way to create a “nanosuit” around the insects that allows them to survive in a vacuum, or space devoid of matter, for more than an hour.
Researchers at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan were studying a series of organisms under a scanning electron microscope, a device so powerful that subjects must be viewed in a vacuum because even air molecules will distort the image. Most of the organisms died within seconds of being placed in the microscope’s viewing chamber, as their bodies shriveled and warped in the vacuum — but to the researchers’ surprise, the fruit fly larvae wriggled on as if nothing unusual was happening, and later matured with no adverse effects.
A closer look at this phenomenon revealed that the electron radiation that a scanning electron microscope uses to compile its images was combining with a naturally occurring filmy layer on the larvae’s surface. The result was a polymer, or sturdy chemical structure comprised of a sequence of molecules, that protected the larvae from the adverse effects of vacuum without even restricting their movement.
The researchers next looked into recreating nanosuits for insects that don’t naturally have the filmy extracellular material that preserved the fruit fly larva. Now, in a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Yasuharu Takaku and his team report that by dousing insects in a common emulsifier commercially known as Tween 20 and then bombarding them with plasma, they were able to create an artificial “nanosuit” that protected the insects from the adverse effects of the vacuum for up to 30 minutes.
These findings have a number of implications, from the immediately practical to the wildly speculative. For one, researchers will be able to look at organic life under a scanning electron microscope without it dying from vacuum exposure (though the radiation from the microscope will still eventually kill it). The Hamamatsu University researchers are now looking into the possibility of a nanosuit that will shield organic life from radiation as well as vacuums. The discovery of a biocompatible membrane that can be created in one step is also likely find quick application in commercial and academic engineering, the researchers note in their report.
The discovery also opens up many theoretical possibilities: Is it possible for small organisms with naturally occurring nanosuits to survive interstellar travel? And will scientists someday be able to fashion thin membranelike suits that allow humans to survive in a vacuum?
“Association of life with a nanosuit now expands our concept of the conditions under which life can survive,” the researchers’ report concludes. “This may be the start of a new era of improved understanding not only of surface biology but of a range of other scientific areas as well.”