A Chernobyl fungus that thrives on radiation


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Scientists have found that a Chernobyl fungus that eats radiation, turning it into food, is so successful that they have sent samples to ISS to see how it responses to space radiation.

By growing it in the International Space Station, where the radiation level is hiked compared to that on Earth, Venkateswaran and Professor Clay Wang of the University of Southern California were able to monitor mutation. When microorganisms are put under more stressful environments, they release different molecules, which could further out understanding of the fungi and how it can be used to develop radiation-blocking drugs for humans.

It is also possible that the fungus could be adapted for other uses.

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a research scientist at NASA who is leading the experiments on the Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, believes that by extracting its radiation-absorbing power and manufacturing it in drug form, it could be used as a ‘sun block’ against toxic rays.

It would allow cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, nuclear power plant engineers and airline pilots to operate without fear of absorbing a deadly dose of rays, Venkateswaran envisaged to Scientific American magazine.

The fungi’s radiation-converting power could also be used to power electrical appliances, with it being touted as a possible biological answer to solar panels.

It appears that the fungi’s high level of melanin contributes to its ability to do this.

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16 comments

  • MJMJ

    Code name: Andromeda

  • Col Beausaber

    Space Truffles !

  • Scott M.

    MJMJ,

    Nah, this is the Fungi from Yoggoth. If you get any strange letters from one Henry Akeley, you should probably ignore them.

  • Max

    In a high radiation environment, it might be just the thing for terraforming as the basis for eventually feeding other higher lifeforms in a developing ecology.
    Too high of radiation will kill it, of course. So we must learn its limit to judge its usefulness. I would question, is the absorption of radiation a form of photosynthesis? Does it make oxygen as a byproduct? Or methane, like anaerobic bacteria, or hydrogen sulfide like some plankton…
    I certainly would not want to wear green slime has sunscreen, I’d rather just wear a shirt.

    I suppose if it is edible, they could open a plutonium battery that is used to heat your Martian dwelling to grow Col Beausaber’s truffles as a major food source.
    If it’s not edible, perhaps a culture can ferment it creating something edible like milk fat is cultured into cheese. I wonder what wine would taste like made from this stuff…

  • Max

    Fungi? Not bacteria? Then just disregard my comment. I read the words but my imagination got carried away with me.

  • Gealon

    Max, how about a suit with green slime? Though as I recall this particular fungus is black in color. I probably should look it up but I am posting on the fly, so don’t quote me on the color. Anyway, the take away is, you don’t necessarily need to apply it to your body.

    As for the Fungi’s radiation tolerance, given the highly radioactive environment inside the remains of the plant, I don’t see this stuff having any trouble tolerating the conditions on Mars. The trick is engineering it into something useful other than a big patch of black fungus.

    I so think the supposition that the fungus could be used as a gateway to replace solar panels is little optimistic. Are we talking about a radio-voltaic conversion here? If so, I con’t see that ever being nearly as efficient at a nuclear reactor. If we’re talking about some sort of organic photo reaction, how then are we extracting useful energy out of it? Generating methane in an anaerobic reaction might be useful as the methane can then be burned for fuel, but I still don’t see that being as efficient as current solar technology. But we will see what develops.

  • wayne

    Scott M-
    excellent obscure cultural-reference!

    …sounds interesting, but I suggest we wait for the Paper.

  • Alex Andrite

    Max – ” I wonder what wine would taste like made from this stuff…”
    NO WINE.
    The fungi are Russian. First we make fungi vodka !

  • Max

    Nice catch Alex, only I would change the name… Funky (fungi) vodka doesn’t sound so appetizing unless it matches the taste.
    Gealon;
    Clothes covered in fungi may work to absorb radiation but I’m afraid I would look like a Chia pet. The thicker the suit grows, the better your protection.
    It may be a good indicator of radiation exposure, like a radiation badge…
    Photovoltaic cells from the fungus not practical unless the melon is extracted or synthesized in a substrate that is long lasting, resist freezing, higher output than other methods. I agree with Gealon, it would only be useful in a high radiation environment perhaps producing power from radioactive waste, or on the surface of mercury. (just as solar panels best efficiency is in the south west desert) A nuclear reactor outproduces all competitors.
    I’ve heard you can Power an LED light by attaching it to a nail in a tree, then connecting to ground. Never tried it so I don’t know if it’s a chemical reaction with the nail, or the tree acting as a radio receiver similar to a TV antenna. Either way, extracting electrical energy directly from a biological source seems inefficient.
    Vegetables and fruit trees on the other hand use their leaves as solar panels to produce energy in packets of nutrition in the form of hydrocarbons (fats) and carbohydrates (sugars). A renewable biological chemical energy resource and effective utilization of sunlight with no harmful by products or pollution.
    What is exciting is this fungi is an expansion of nature’s capabilities previously unknown, which we have not explored…

  • pzatchok

    Use it for transformation.

    It need only help build a higher organic soil for other stuff to grow in after the radiation comes down from an increased atmosphere density.

  • pzatchok

    terraforming sorry

  • Jason Hillyer

    “…eats radiation…”

    …..Godzilla!!

  • Ryan Lawson

    When did the fungus evolve this ability? It seems like normal Earth surface conditions would not be conducive to fungi that require radiation to survive.

  • wayne

    Ryan–
    As for your first bit–Great question.
    As for the second bit— forgive me, it’s early, but try thinking about it this way (transpose cause & effect):
    “A Population of Giraffes didn’t develop long necks, in order to reach the best vegetation, evolutionary selection-pressures selected out Giraffes that didn’t trend toward longer necks and killed them off (they didn’t reproduce) Giraffes that trended toward relatively longer necks, reproduced and passed those traits into the future.”
    Complicating the matter slightly–fungi reproduce in one of two ways: asexually through mitosis, or sexually through meiosis. And although they do not need a Host to survive, once inside a Host they trend toward sexual reproduction and depend upon the host to live. And… fungi are saprophytic, “they live on dead or decaying organic matter obtaining nourishment from the products of organic breakdown and decay.”

  • Edward

    Ryan Lawson,
    The article did not say that the fungus requires radiation but that it has a mechanism in which radiation provides more energy for its survival. Because “the fungi actually grows towards the radiation, as if attracted to it,” it seems to thrive in this environment. Having this additional energy makes it better suited to higher radiation environments than many of its competitors, which may perish from such high amounts of gamma radiation.

    Because the Earth’s surface has a small amount of background radiation, evolving a small advantage over other life forms would help the survival of this kind of species. This ability could have developed millions of years ago or hundreds of millions of years ago, and perhaps evolved in regions of the Earth which had higher amounts of background radiation.

    The article mentions that “The fungi that grow in there (Chernobyl reactor) are radiotrophic fungi, that are rich in melanin” and that “Melanin absorbs radiation and converts it into other forms of energy (including electric).

    Melanin is found in most organisms, so it would seem it evolved early in the evolution of life — perhaps before multi-cell organisms evolved. Ultraviolet radiation is a danger to many organisms, especially single cell organisms, so I suspect that it evolved fairly early as a protection from the harmful aspects of the sunlight that provides energy to life. We humans have it in our skin, and it is best known for the darkening of skin and protection from ultraviolet radiation.

    The apparent attraction to the gamma radiation seems new to me. The article says that this fungus “spawned” in the reactor, which suggests that it is a new species that evolved this ability, or this amount of ability, only recently, although this seems unlikely because gamma radiation causes cellular damage, and high radiation levels would be a difficult environment for evolution. If it evolved this amount of ability long ago, then it is only now that we are discovering this talent.

  • Edward

    Continuing to ponder this fungus, it seems that we cannot assume that life forms require the sun as a source of energy. Using other forms of energy can be rewarding, too. On Earth we have found life that flourishes near undersea lava flows, deep in the ocean and away from any sunlight, showing that heat is a valid source of energy for life. Now biologists are letting us know that other forms of radiation, not just sunlight, can be sources of energy for life.

    We have previously thought of gamma radiation as potentially deadly, but here is a life form that can use this same radiation as an energy source for its existence. Star Trek’s USS Enterprise explores strange new worlds and seeks out new life, but we still have some exploration left to do here at home.

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