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Nanosuits help small creatures survive a vacuum

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Posted April 17, 2013
(A–D) A living Drosophila larva was exposed to high vacuum with electron-beam irradiation for 60 min. (F and G) Before SEM observation, a different larva (light micrograph in F) was placed in the observation chamber without electron-beam irradiation for 60 min. (H and I) The specimen collapsed completely when subsequently observed by SEM. Each small white square in C and H is shown magnified in D and I, respectively. (E and J) TEM images are shown of vertical sections through the surface of each animal. The layer between the arrowheads in E indicates the limits of the newly formed outer membrane, not present in J. An outer layer covering the animal represents ECSs in B and G. Credit: (c) 2013 PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221341110

(A–D) A living Drosophila larva was exposed to high vacuum with electron-beam irradiation for 60 min. (F and G) Before SEM observation, a different larva (light micrograph in F) was placed in the observation chamber without electron-beam irradiation for 60 min. (H and I) The specimen collapsed completely when subsequently observed by SEM. Each small white square in C and H is shown magnified in D and I, respectively. (E and J) TEM images are shown of vertical sections through the surface of each animal. The layer between the arrowheads in E indicates the limits of the newly formed outer membrane, not present in J. An outer layer covering the animal represents ECSs in B and G. Credit: (c) 2013 PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221341110

Scientists use scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) to study tiny structures in small organisms. SEMs can only work in a high vacuum, and exposure to such a vacuum normally causes living things to die very quickly. Therefore, until now, scientists have been unable to study living specimens using SEMs. Takahiko Hariyama of the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan and his colleagues report that they were able to create “nanosuits” for small organisms by bombarding these organisms with electron beams or plasma radiation. In their paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Hariyama’s team reports that these nanosuits provide protection against a high vacuum, allowing the organisms to stay alive in SEMs while scientists analyze them.

Exposure to a high vacuum causes living things to become dehydrated, collapse and die. This poses a problem for scientists who want to study fine structures on small organisms, because they must use SEMs to view these structures. They can only observe dead creatures, so do not get a true picture of how these structures appear on living ones.

Hariyama and his team tested how long different kinds of organisms would live in an SEM. As expected, almost all of the living things they studied died quickly. However, to their surprise, fruit fly larvae moved around for a full hour while in the SEM.

When the researchers placed fruit fly larvae in a high vacuum SEM observation chamber, but waited an hour before exposing the larvae to electron beams, the larvae all died, indicating that electrons somehow aided the other group’s survival.

Read more at: Phys.org

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