Remember the first time you saw an image in school of a photo taken by a scanning electron microscope? I think for me it was a single grain of salt, and it looked like a 3D cube. It very well might have been the first time in school that I started to think science was really cool.
Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) can magnify an object up to 300,000 times its actual size, and they enable researchers to see things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
As cool as SEMs are, they have a massive limitation. They require a vacuum to operate … a vacuum like in SPACE.
People can’t go into space without a space suit. Human flesh would expand to about twice its size in space and thermal radiation causes rapid, almost immediate evaporation of liquids inside the body.
Since an SEM creates space like conditions, living things can’t be scanned. They immediately dehydrate and die.
Researchers at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan thought about how they could create a kind of tiny little space suit for a fruit fly larva so they could scan it moving around. The solution was to bombard the larva with electrons. When they did that, energy from the electrons changed the thin film on the skin by linking molecules together. This process is called polymerization.
The new protective layer is thinner than a human hair. The larva can move around just fine, but polymerization protected it in exactly the same way a space suit protects an astronaut in space. They were able to scan the larva for an hour as it wiggled around. When removed, the larva survived and developed into a healthy adult fruit fly.
They were able to vary the process to repeat the experiment with mosquitoes and ants.
Since this works to protect insects in the vacuum of a scanning electron microscope, it’s possible that a variation of the process could be used to protect humans when traveling in space.