Fungi That Eats Radiation Are Alive and Well in Chernobyl
by Matthew Gilligan
Chernobyl, Ukraine, has received plenty of attention since the radiation explosion that took place there in April 1986. People are fascinated with disasters, of course, but also with the ideas of the apocalypse and what humanity and the world around it might look like if something similar happened on a wider scale.
In much smaller, but still fascinating news, there’s a unique, curious sort of fungi munching on the still-radioactive walls of the nuclear reactors. They’re not alone, either – scientists have documented around 200 species of 98 genera of fungi living in and around the ruins of the former nuclear power plant.
While the majority of them just aren’t bothered by the high levels of radiation, some of the fungi – known as “black” or “radiotrophic” fungi – actually eat the radiation. They’re armed with melanin that allows them to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth, and it’s possible it helps shield them from the harmful effects of the radiation itself.
Though scientists understand how the black fungi are converting the radiation into energy, the science on why remains out.
“In many commercial nuclear reactors, the radioactive water becomes contaminated with melanotic organisms [with black pigmentation]. Nobody really knows what the hell they are doing there,” said microbiologist Arturo Casadevall back in 2007.
His team conducted research into the fungi at Chernobyl and found three species – Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Wangiella dermatitis – that are able to withstand radiation levels about 500x higher than those in the background.
Not only that, but they actually seem to grow faster the higher their exposure to radiation. Other studies have found that these particular fungi point their spores and hyphae toward the source of radiation, as though reaching for the energy source.
Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has also closely studied the fungi.
“Following the accident, fungi were the first organisms to pop up and scientists wanted to understand how they can thrive in such an environment.
The fungi collected at the accident site had more melanin than the fungi collected from outside the exclusion zone.
This means the fungi have adapted to the radiation activity, and as many as 20 percent were found to be radiotrophic – meaning they grew towards the radiation; they loved it.”
NASA and other scientists are interested in black fungi for other reasons, too – some of the spores from Chernobyl were sent to the International Space Station in the hopes that they would divulge some of their secrets for tolerating such high levels of radiation.
There’s also some talk of using them as a food source for astronauts during long flights.