Put a fruit fly larva in a spacelike vacuum, and the results aren’t pretty. Within a matter of 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. The advance could help scientists take high-resolution photographs of tiny living organisms. 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.
Snapping a picture with a nanometer-level resolution of the proboscis or muscle cells of a fruit fly isn’t easy—in fact, it’s deadly. Scientists have to use a scanning electron microscope, which must peer at objects in a vacuum because air molecules absorb the electrons that the microscope depends on to take the picture. Only a tiny number of creatures, such as the famously hardy tardigrade, can survive the process. Most other bugs die quickly of dehydration as the vacuum sucks the water out of their bodies.
A fruit fly larva is one such victim. But 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. When they put another larva in the same vacuum and let it sit there for an hour before bombarding it with the microscope’s electrons, it predictably dehydrated to death. Somehow, the electron stream was keeping the larva alive and so unscathed that it later grew to become a healthy fruit fly.
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. "Even if we touched the surface [of the layer]," Hariyama says, "the surface did not break by our mechanical touch." It was almost like a miniature spacesuit.
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