If you know a few things about the fungus, you probably know that it can thrive in the toughest conditions. From cardboard and jet fuel to asbestos and plastic, mushrooms can “eat” anything. However, the real shock came when scientists discovered a fungus that can “eat” radiation and grow inside the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. This particular fungus, also known as “radiotrophic fungi”, feeds on radiation itself and experts believe it could be used to create “sunblocks”.
This radioactive fungus was first discovered in 1991 around and inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It contains large amounts of melanin which helps it to convert radiation into energy for growth. It has been particularly noted that melanin-rich fungal colonies have begun to grow rapidly in the cooling waters of power plant reactors, causing them to turn black. While there are many cases of extreme organisms (organisms that can live in extreme conditions like radioactive power plants), microbiologist Arturo Casadevall believes these fungi grow because of radiation, not any other. accept it.
In 1991, five years after the Chernobyl disaster, scientists found a strange black fungus, similar to mold on dirty shower curtains, growing on the walls of a nuclear reactor. It confused them and questioned how they were able to thrive in such a harsh environment filled with radiation. They soon realized that the fungus was not only immune to lethal radiation, but was actually attracted to it!
A decade later, researchers discovered that the fungus is rich in melanin, a pigment also found in human skin that can be used to carry out radiosynthesis. In theory, photosynthesis is a process in which a living organism can capture and convert ionizing radiation, which basically means turning the radiation into some form of chemical energy that helps the organism to survive. develop. Scientists are still uncertain whether melanin-rich fungi use the same multi-step pathway as chlorophyll organisms do for photosynthesis.
Phototrophs or autotrophs are fungi that can use radiation as an energy source to stimulate growth. Autotrophic fungi have been found in extreme environments such as in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Most known radioactive fungi use melanin in some capacity to survive
Dr Arturo Casadevall and Dr Ekaterina Dadachova of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York performed tests to see how three species of fungi grow at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, namely Wangiella dermatitidis, Cryptococcus neoformans and Cladosporium sphaerospermum, reacts to gamma radiation from tungsten-188 and rhenium-188. The results, published in the journal PLoS One, showed that all three fungi grew faster and thrived in radiation conditions.
Previous studies have revealed that fungi that grow in contaminated areas tend to try to access radiation sources to varying degrees. Some fungi found in Chernobyl can even decompose radioactive materials such as hot graphite. Most of these fungi produce the pigment melanin, and experts believe that this pigment actually protects the fungus from various environmental stresses. Dadachova and her team also found that when exposed to radiation, the melanin molecules in the fungus change shape, making it four times more capable of carrying out metabolic chemical reactions than conventional often.
According to Dadachova, such radiation-eating fungi may have existed during the early Cretaceous period, during which time the Earth experienced “non-magneticity,” an event that stripped away its protective shield. of the planet before cosmic rays. Many plant and animal species died out during this time, but sediments show that this was also a period when large numbers of melanin-rich fungal spores flourished.
Melanins are a family of natural ancient pigments with radio-protective properties typically dark brown/black in color. It is important to note that melanin has a high molecular weight. This pigment can transmit and shield energy, so it can absorb electromagnetic radiation and absorb light. This quality means that melanin can protect melanized fungi from ionizing radiation. The energy transfer also enhances fungal growth, which means melanized mushrooms grow faster. Melanin is also an advantage of the fungus in that it helps it survive in a variety of different, harsher and different environments. Examples of this environment include the damaged reactor at Chernobyl, the space station, and the mountains of Antarctica. Melanin may also help fungi convert radiation into energy, but more evidence and research is still needed.
After the discovery of phototrophic fungi, scientists began to wonder if human melanin-rich cells could turn radiation into energy. According to Casadevall, there is no concrete evidence for this, and if possible, in theory, but cells would not produce enough energy to sustain a person without food and water. On the other hand, researchers at NASA have theorized that it is possible to extract the radiation-absorbing power of mushrooms to create a drug that protects people from harmful rays. Nuclear power plant engineers, cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy and airline pilots can all benefit from the drug.