Insect spacesuits

Fit an insect larva out with a nano-spacesuit made from the detergent Tween-20 and it can survive the journey into the deep vacuum, not of space, but of the scanning electron microscope. The discovery by Takahiko Hariyama, of Hamamatsu University, and colleagues could pave the way for detailed microscopic imaging of living organisms. SEM usually kills cells and organisms, but the Japanese team initially discovered that an extra cellular substance that coats larva was being cross-linked by the electron beam to form a natural polymer spacesuit that protects the grubs. The fruit fly larva could thus survive for up to an hour as long as they were exposed to the electron beam early in the process. In the vacuum chamber with the electron beam switched off they die within minutes. The natural material is amphiphilic, so the team tested several synthetic materials that might allow them to mimic the effect of the natural protection with other organisms. Tween-20 gives a dipped organism an extra half an hour of life in the SEM, the team reports.