Nanocoating protects larva and small fish from the vacuum of space for one hour

Researchers have found that the beam of a scanning electron microscope can turn a thin coating that occurs naturally on the larvae of some insects into a sort of miniature spacesuit that can keep the animals alive in a vacuum for up to an hour.

The researchers made their discovery while testing how long various animals could survive in a high vacuum while being imaged inside a scanning electron microscope. Most organisms to lose water rapidly in these conditions, leading to death by dehydration and physical distortion, but the larvae of the fruitfly Drosophila survived for 60 minutes and went on to develop normally after being returned to normal pressure.

The cuticles of fruitfly larvae are naturally coated in a substance made of biological molecules such as proteins, and the researchers suspected that exposure to the electron beam caused molecules in the substance to lock together in long chains, or polymers. That would create a flexible, protective layer just 50–100 nanometres thick. Other organisms that have similar coatings, such as Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica) and larvae of blue-bottle flies (Protophormia terraenovae), survived in the high vacuum after being irradiated with plasma beams, which can generate a polymerization effect similar to that of an electron beam. Plasma beams are already used for that purpose in some industrial application.

Hariyama already has an eye on the skies: he and his team hope to send small animals wearing nano-suits to space, and he says that they have already had some success in nano-suiting small fish.

Astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild of Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California, told Science that the nano-suits could allow creatures, or even people, to survive the extreme environments of space.

The researchers believe that this technique could eventually be used to allow astronauts to do away with their traditional spacesuits.

This would be especially promising when combined with injectable oxygen which could enable people to last 15 minutes or more without breathing

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