Chernobyl fungus used in space experiments

14 February 2020

American astronauts plan to take samples of fungus from the walls of the Chernobyl nuclear plant on-board the International Space Station (IIS) for experimentation, Russia’s Novosti kosmonavtiki (Cosmonautics News) reported on 12 February.  

Five years after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in 1991, scientists discovered that the walls of the nuclear power plant were covered with a black mould.

A study by an international group of scientists showed that three fungi that contain the melanin pigment increased biomass and accumulated acetate faster in an environment where radiation levels were 500 times higher than normal.

The fungi species were Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Wangiella dermatitidis and Cryptococcus neoformans.

The fungi converted gamma radiation energy into chemical energy in the way that plants convert carbon dioxide and chlorophyll into oxygen and glucose using photosynthesis. This process is known as radiostimulation or radiosynthesis.

NASA experts joined the study to investigate whether this mechanism can be used to create radiation protection equipment.

Another possible use is energy storage, which can be a biological alternative to solar panels.

Lead author of the study, Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has spent years studying the fungi, which was sent to the ISS in 2016 for a controlled experiment.

It has been suggested that a fungi-based ‘anti-radiation sunblock’ could be used by cancer patients, by nuclear plant engineers, and even cosmonauts and astronauts during missions in space.

In November 2019, scientists from the US Johns Hopkins University sent melanin derived from the fungus to the International Space Station where it is now being tested for its ability to protect against radiation in space.

"We know that space radiation is dangerous and that it damages matter," says Radamés J.B. Cordero, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead on the project.

"If you have a material that can act as a shield against radiation, it could not only protect people and structures in space but also have very real benefits for people here on Earth."

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