A strange fungus that actually eats and grows on radiation is completely covering the walls at Chernobyl. It all began in 1986 when the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were undergoing routine testing. At that time, something went completely different from what how it was thought to happen and two explosions blew the roof off one of the plant’s reactors. As a result, the entire area was covered in such great amounts of radiation that it was impossible to live.
In 1991, something strange happened; an unusual fungus began to cover the walls of the Chernobyl reactor. This phenomenon confused a handful of scientists. The couldn’t understand how it was possible for the fungus to survive in that area heavily tainted with radiation. After some investigations though, they managed to figure out that that radioactive environment was actually PERFECT for the fungus to thrive!
In fact, such radiation-eating fungi has been seen before actually. Fungal spores which are high in melanin have been found in deposits from early in the Cretaceous period when the Earth hit ‘magnetic zero’. According to Ekaterina Dadachova, a nuclear chemist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, it was during this time that the fungi lost much of its protection against cosmic radiation.
Her research, which was published in 2007, involved analysis of three different kinds of fungi. In this research, it was concluded that the fungi which contained melanin were able to absorb high amounts of energy in ionizing radiation. Then, they used this energy for the benefit of their own by converting it into something more useful, sort of like photosynthesis.
It was observed by scientists that the melanin molecules change their shape under radiation and that those fungi that had a natural shell of melanin actually thrived in such environments which high amounts of radiation.
Normally, the melanin absorbs energy and dissipates it quickly. In our skin, for example, in our skin, melanin prevents the ultraviolet radiation from the sun from having a big impact on our body. With the fungi, however, it works a little bit differently; it does weaken the radiation, but it’s also used by them for different processes.
Chernobyl isn’t the only place where melanized fungi are found. Fukoshima, other high-radiation environments, the Antarctic mountains, and even the space station is covered with these radiotrophic fungi.
You can check the video below to find out more about these organisms’ superpowers!