Electron scanning microscopes famously offer immense magnification, but with a similarly large caveat: anything being viewed must be in a vacuum. The machine uses a stream of electrons to take the magnified picture, and air molecules would interfere with that stream. Which means that any living organism put into a scanning electron microscope won’t be living very long. The vacuum pulls all moisture out of its body and, well, it’s not pretty. (Except for tardigrades, or water bears, which make cockroaches look like fragile flowers when it comes to tolerating unspeakable living conditions. If we humans nuke the world someday, it won’t be the cockroaches taking over. It’ll be the tardigrades.)
Recently, researchers discovered that if they fired up the stream of electrons immediately upon introducing a fruit fly larva into the microscope, the larva not only didn’t die, but went on to become a healthy adult.
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…It was almost like a miniature spacesuit.
Cool! But, there was a problem. Most critters don’t have that thin skin film to be polymerized by the electrons and turned into a nano-suit. So the researchers decided to create an artificial version.
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.
Short version: they lived for 30 minutes. The method also worked on flatworms, ants, sand hoppers, and other organisms, which is proof of concept that nano-suited organisms might actually be able to hitch a ride on a meteorite and survive the trip. Panspermists, start your engines.
An astrobiologist working for NASA pointed out that this research could have implications for space travel: “Imagine a flexible space shield, roughly the diameter of a human hair, that could protect against dehydration and radiation.” And this is why science is so fun, because you never know when peering at a fruit fly larva might lead to some outrageously unexpected potential, like how to shield astronauts from life-shortening radiation in space.