On Monday, eight species of fungi gathered from Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX rocket.
Scientists hope to understand how the Chernobyl fungi shield themselves from radiation. What they find could lead to major developments not only in how we treat illnesses on Earth, but also in how we will explore the universe outside of our planet.
400 atomic bombs
Scientists estimate that the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released as much radioactive material into the environment as 400 atomic bombs. It destroyed all plant and wildlife in the vicinity.
Thirty years later, the area is still pretty barren. But these resilient fungi are the first forms of life to grow and actually thrive in this radioactive wasteland. Scientists found that some of these species even actually grow towards the radiation.
Right now, the scientists think that melanin, the same dark pigment we have in our skin, helps shield the fungi from harmful radiation and helps convert that radiation into a food source.
“The fungi collected at the accident site had more melanin than the fungi collected from outside the exclusion zone,” Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Motherboard. “This means the fungi have adapted to the radiation activity and as many as twenty percent were found to be radiotrophic-meaning they grew towards the radiation; they loved it.”
Making new compounds in space
Microorganisms only make certain things when they need to, pharmacologist Clay Wang explained to Popular Science. The scientists are sending these microorganisms to the ISS to see if they make new compounds in space.
On the ISS, the fungi will experience the effects of microgravity for 14 days before heading back to Earth, where scientists will compare them to identical strains grown on the ground.
Previous studies have already shown that these fungi can produce “special biological molecules” that could possibly fight illnesses like depression and cancer, Venkateswaran told Motherboard.
Pushing the boundaries of human space exploration
But the benefits of this research don’t end there. Understanding how these fungi beat radiation will be extremely helpful in our quest to explore and colonize other planets
Similar to Chernobyl (though not quite as severe), the universe is brimming with high energy radiation in the form of cosmic rays. Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect us from most of this radiation. But in space astronauts are constantly exposed to it, which could cause mutations that lead to cancer.
So, this research could help scientists develop a “sunblock” to protect human space explorers from the boatloads of dangerous radiation bouncing around in outer space.
The research will also help scientists create crops that can thrive in extreme, radiation-rich environments, such as on Mars.
As we continue to push the boundaries of human space exploration, learning how to survive in the face of radiation will be key.