Scientists hope to use the capabilities of fungi to find remedies for those who are habitually exposed to radiation. Cancer patients, nuclear power station engineers and astronauts.
Since the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, some species of fungi have thrived despite radiation from these now abandoned areas.
Whether it's an asteroid or an ice age, planet Earth and its life forms always seem to find a way to overcome a nemesis. Recently, scientists have found that some particularly impressive small life forms have even been able to survive in a harsh environment like Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 it remains the worst episode of its kind in known history and has probably killed hundreds of thousands of people over the years.
The mushroom paradise
Even 34 years later, radiation remains in the surrounding area of Chernobyl, but this place has also become a mecca for a certain type of mushrooms.
A research team has found at least 200 species and 98 genera of fungi that thrive from radiation in the infamous disaster site. The surprising discovery was first documented in 1991. At the time, scientists discovered that mushrooms were growing on the walls of the abandoned nuclear reactor that was still covered in gamma radiation.
Amazed, the researchers began studying organisms, known as "black fungi" due to their concentrations of melanin, and found that three different species they lived in spite of huge gamma radiation values. These strains,
Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans and Wangiella dermatitidisthey even found themselves growing faster in the presence of radiation and even growing towards it as if they were naturally attracted to it.
"The mushrooms collected at the accident site had more melanin than the mushrooms collected outside the evacuation area"Said Kasthuri Venkat, senior NASA researcher and lead scientist on the agency's space mushroom project.
"This means that the fungi have adapted to the activity of radiation and as many as 20% were found to be radiotrophic, ie grown towards radiation".
A special "photosynthesis"
Since mushrooms contain so much melanin, they are able to feed gamma rays and convert them into chemical energy, a bit like a “dark” version of photosynthesis. This process is called radiosynthesis.
Scientists have wondered whether melanin in human skin cells can also turn radiation into "food", but for now they tend to categorically rule it out. However, they do not rule out this possibility for other forms of life.
"The fact that it occurs in fungi increases the possibility that it can occur in animals and plants", added the researchers.
One of these ways would be to find applications to protect people who are regularly exposed to radiation, such as cancer patients and nuclear power plant engineers. Scientists also hope that mushrooms can be used to develop a biological source of energy through the conversion of radiation.
Chernobyl mushrooms, possible applications also in space
Another possible application for the powers of these mushrooms is in space travel.
In 2016, SpaceX and NASA sent a package to the International Space Station (ISS) containing several strains of fungi from Chernobyl. The expedition also included more than 250 different tests to be performed for the space crew.
Why space? The molecular changes the researchers observed in Chernobyl mushrooms were caused by the stress created by the site's radiation exposure. The researchers hoped to replicate this reaction in space. There they planned to expose the fungi to the stress of microgravity and compare them to similar strains of fungi left on Earth.
The results of the NASA study could have great benefits for future space travel, likely offering astronauts a way to protect themselves from deadly amounts of cosmic radiation. The results of these investigations aboard the ISS will soon be published in a forthcoming document.
In Chernobyl and through the most dangerous radioactivity zones on Earth, life continues to find a way to adapt to even the most difficult environments.