When SpaceX launched its latest rocket to deliver a new load of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, it also contained a series of experiments for the astronauts to conduct. One of these might seem fairly innocuous at first: an experiment to grow certainstrains of fungi. But these are not any fungi. Collected from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone, these fungi can feed on radiation, andcould help future space missions.
After visitingthe Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, scientists realized there may be more to the “black fungi” that were thriving in the region despite the high levels of radiation present. The numbers of these fungi were found to have risen dramatically following the meltdown, and on further examination, found to grow towards radiation sources, in a manner that appeared to imply that they were trying to reach them.
It turns out that the fungi might be harnessing melaninthe pigment found in skin that helps to protect against UV damagein order to break down radiation. Not radioactive compounds, but radiation itself. By harvesting its energy, the fungi is able to use the radiation in order to grow, a concept that has been of interest toscientists as a potential way to solve the problem of feeding astronauts duringlong space flights or when they colonize other planets.
But scientists arenot really thinking that futurestar travelers will be chowing down on bowls full of black fungi (said to resemble the mold found on dirty shower curtains). Instead, by figuring out how the fungi thrive, scientist hope to harness this knowledge forfurther applications. Earlier research has suggestedthat exposure to radiation caused the fungal melanin pigment to change shape, allowing it to break the radiation down and thus get energy out of it.
While it might be possible to alter the shape of the melanin found in human skin, scientists speculate that this wouldnt work in the same way as energy generation in plants. It is hoped, though, it might be possible to use this knowledge toenable plantsto grow in more extreme environments where there arehigh levels of radiation, such as on other planets like Mars.
It is important to stress that this is all hypothetical at the moment. However, it is questions like these that this latest series of experiments willhopefully illuminate.The astronauts willbe growing eight species of radiation-munching fungi for 14 days, while on Earth other scientists will be doing the same, allowing them to compare the strains when they return to solid ground.