Fungus is one of the most resilient and adaptable organisms on the planet.
One of the most interesting things about fungus is that it can basically be ‘trained’ to eat just about anything. Fungi have been demonstrated to eat things like plastic and cigarette butts.
One of the more interesting – and potentially life-changing – things that fungus can ‘eat’ is radioactive waste. Researchers have discovered that there’s a certain type of fungus growing inside the reactor site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
A Reactive Discovery
The fungus was first discovered in 1991, five years after the disaster. Remotely controlled robots captured video feed of an extremely dark fungus growing on the walls of the reactor.
While the impressive properties of the fungus weren’t understood at the time, researchers were shocked to discover anything growing there at all. They also noted that the fungus seemed to be breaking down the highly radioactive graphite in the reactor core and that it proliferated in areas that were stronger sources of radiation.
It wasn’t until more than ten years later that researchers confirmed that the fungus did, indeed, thrive in radioactive environments. Professor Ekaterina Dadachova acquired some of the strange fungi and ran some tests that revealed it grew stronger and more quickly when there was radiation around.
One of the things that researchers found is that the fungus had an incredibly high amount of melanin.
Melanin is a pigment. If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably because you know that darker people have more melanin in their skin. Melanin is dark because it absorbs light. It also helps to dissipate ultraviolet radiation.
In humans, this explains why dark people tend to burn less in the sun. This fungus seems to take things a step further, however, by actually using the radiation as fuel and converting it into some sort of usable energy.
These new discoveries are impressive, to say the least. There’s a lot of potential that could be unlocked if researchers are able to mimic the processes of this fungus.
Nature often offers the best solutions for engineers to model sustainable processes after. In this case, nature has offered an interesting solution by which we can recycle radioactive energy and turn it into something useful.
The fungus is part of a class of organisms known as extremophiles (things which can decompose radioactive material and use it to survive).
Extremophiles have a lot of potentials. Above all, they can help to repair the damage done to the planet thanks to radioactive problems like nuclear explosions.
Another thing that this fungus may be used for is helping to absorb radiation in the International Space Station.
Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a NASA biologist, is considered an expert on extremophile fungus. He believes that this fungus could help make the radioactive environment on the space station more hospitable.
He also says that this offers promise in regard to future space travel. Massive amounts of interstellar radiation are one of the biggest difficulties preventing us from traveling great distances in space, and Venkateswaran thinks a process similar to this may be vital for helping to send astronauts into the stars.
Written by Nigel Ford