Home » Science » Earth Sciences » Atmospheric Science » How Did the Fungi in Chernobyl React to the Radiation?

How Did the Fungi in Chernobyl React to the Radiation?

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was a nuclear accident in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat. To this day, it is considered the worse nuclear disaster in history. The area is highly radioactive and inhabitable. However, many areas bordering the zone are relatively safe to live in. Researchers who constantly study the area, and have made a discovery on fungi growing on the walls of reactor no. 4. What did they find out?

Scientists were able to find fungi growing on the walls of the ruined nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. These fungi seem to absorb radiation and convert it into chemical energy which aids in their growth.

The Radiation-Eating Fungi 

Scientists were astounded when they made the discovery in 1991. Researchers remotely piloting robots inside the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant discovered pitch-black fungi growing on the walls of the decimated No. 4 nuclear reactor and breaking down radioactive graphite from the core itself. Furthermore, the fungi appeared to be growing towards radiation sources, as if the microbes were drawn to them.

More than a decade later, Ekaterina Dadachova of the University of Saskatchewan and her colleagues obtained some of the fungi and discovered that they grew faster in the presence of radiation than other fungi.

The three species tested, Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Wangiella dermatitidis, all showed high levels of the pigment melanin, which can be found in a variety of places, including human skin. People with darker skin tones have much more of it.

Melanin is known for its ability to absorb light and dissipate ultraviolet radiation. But in the fungi, it also seemed to be absorbing radiation and converting it into chemical energy for growth, perhaps in a similar fashion to how plants utilize the green pigment chlorophyll to attain energy from photosynthesis. 

Melanin is known to absorb light and dissipate ultraviolet radiation, but in fungi, it appears to absorb radiation and convert it into chemical energy for growth, possibly like how plants use the green pigment chlorophyll to obtain energy from photosynthesis. (Source: Real Clear Science )

The Radiation-Eating Fungi in Space

To learn more about Chernobyl’s radiation-loving fungi, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) researchers sent eight species collected from the site to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016. They are hoping to see how the organisms would react in space.

The ISS environment exposes inhabitants to 40 to 80 times more radiation than the Earth’s environment. The researchers behind the project hoped that the fungi would produce molecules that could be adapted into drugs that could be given to astronauts on long-term missions to protect them from radiation. The experiment’s findings have yet to be published.

Dadachova noted in a 2008 paper that radiation-attracted fungi are unlikely to be the first of their kind.

Large quantities of highly melanized fungal spores have been found in early Cretaceous period deposits when many species of animals and plants died out. This period coincides with Earth’s crossing the “magnetic” resulting in the loss of its “shield” against cosmic radiation.

Ekaterina Dadachova, Researcher, University of Saskatchewan

This study presents a fascinating possibility: could there be places in the universe where melanin-containing species flourish in radiation-rich environments? Life may find a way wherever there is energy to be collected. (Source: Real Clear Science)

Leave a Comment