It sounds like a horror/sci-fi movie from the 1950s: “The Fungi That Eat Radiation.” And the location? Prime horror location Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Watch as the fungi start munching on radiation and then slowly move on to the scientists (played by actors with exaggerated Russian accents)!
But seriously, there are fungi growing on the walls in Chernobyl’s No. 4 nuclear reactor that are attracted to sources of radiation. And the implications are potentially life-changing for astronauts who go into space on long-term missions.
Back in 1991, scientists first observed the pitch-black fungi spreading in the reactor, apparently breaking down radioactive graphite from the core, and also growing towards sources of radiation as if attracted to them.
More than ten years later, University of Saskatchewan Professor Ekaterina Dadachova (then at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York) and her colleagues acquired some of the Chernobyl fungi and found that they grew faster in the presence of radiation compared to other fungi.
They tested three species: Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Wangiella dermatitidis. All three had large amounts of the pigment melanin, which is found in our skin. Melanin absorbs light and dissipates ultraviolet radiation. However, in the fungi, the melanin seemed to be absorbing radiation and converting it into chemical energy for growth.
In 2016, Jet Propulsion Laboratory researches sent eight fungi species from the area to the International Space Station to see how they react. The ISS environment has between 40 and 80 times more radiation than on Earth, and the researchers were hoping that the fungi would make molecules that could eventually become drugs astronauts could take to protect them from radiation on missions. Results are yet to be published.
So about that horror movie…