Radiation-hungry fungi feed astronauts

10 June 2007
Posted by Chris Smith.

Inspired by findings from Chernobyl, biologists have discovered that some fungi can grow using radiation instead of light, this may make them ideal for growing in space for astronaut food.Cryptococcus neoformans

The work began after a robot explorer was sent into the still highly radioactive Chernobyl site and emerged with samples of black fungi found growing on the walls.  It was realised that the black colour of the fungi was caused by the chemical melanin, the same chemical that pigments your skin and makes people go brown in the sun.

Dr. Arturo Casadevall wondered if the radiation was actually feeding the fungi so set up a number of experiments to test his theory.  He found that just like chlorophyll captured ordinary light to convert to energy in plants the melanin could capture high energy radiation to feed the fungi.  It was also found that species of fungi grown in his lab grew much faster when exposed to increased radiation.

Dr. Casadevall is also testing edible fungi which may provide excellent food to be grown in the harsh radiation conditions in space.  The results may also have implications for the possibilities of life on other worlds such as Mars where conditions are much worse than the Earth.

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