The walls at Chernobyl are being covered by a strange fungus that actually eats and grows on radiation. In 1986, the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were undergoing routine testing when something went terribly wrong. In what has been described as the worst nuclear accident in history, two explosions blew the roof off one of the plant’s reactors and the entire area and its surroundings was covered in enormous amounts of radiation making it unfit for human life.
Five years after the disaster, the walls of the Chernobyl reactor began to be covered by an unusual fungus. Scientists were pretty confused by how the fungus could survive in an area that had been so heavily tainted with radiation. They finally figured out that not only was it able to survive the radioactive environment, but the fungus actually seemed to thrive on it.
According to a report by Fox News, it took another ten years for researchers to test the fungus and discover that it was rich in melanin, the same pigment that is present in human skin and helps protect it from the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. In the fungi, the presence of the melanin allowed it to absorb that radiation and change it into another type of energy which would allow it to grow.
This isn’t the first or only time that such radiation-eating fungi have been seen. Fungal spores that are high in melanin have been found in deposits from early in the Cretaceous period, a stretch of time when the Earth hit ‘magnetic zero,’ losing much of its protection against cosmic radiation, according to Ekaterina Dadachova, a nuclear chemist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She and Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist from the same institution published research on the fungus in 2007.
They did analysis of three different kinds of fungi, according to an article in Scientific American, Based on their work, they concluded that the types which contained melanin are able to absorb the high amounts of energy in ionizing radiation and are able to convert it into something more useful for its own propagation, sort of like photosynthesis.
The team observed that the radiation changes the shape of the melanin molecules that the electron level, and that fungi which had a natural shell of melanin and were deprived of other nutrients actually did better in environments that had high amounts of radiation. If they could induce fungi to grow a melanin shell, they also did better around higher levels or radiation, unlike spores which didn’t have the melanin.
Melanin is designed to absorb energy and help it dissipate as quickly as possible. That’s what it does in our skin, distributing ultraviolet radiation from the sun in such a way that its harmful impact on the body is minimized. With the fungi, the team suggested that it acts sort of like an energy transformer, making the energy from the radiation weak enough that it can be effectively used by fungus.
Since it was already known that melanin offered protection against UV radiation, it doesn’t seem like a huge step to buy the idea that melanin could be affected by ionizing radiation, but other scientists weren’t as quick to agree, saying that the results could seem amplified since the fungi they tested that lacked melanin failed to thrive in a higher-radiation environment. Skeptics argued that it doesn’t pain a clear picture for melanin helping to stimulate growth under those conditions.
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Melanized fungi varieties have also been found in Fukoshima and other high-radiation environments, the Antarctic mountains, and even on the space station. If all of those varieties are also radiotropic, that suggests that melanin may, in fact, behave like chlorophyll and other energy-harvesting pigments. It will take further research to determine whether there any practical applications of the Chernobyl fungus beyond the ability to help clean up radioactive areas.