Chernobyl Fungus Could Save Astronauts From Cosmic Radiation

  • We’d at least be hesitant to place our lives into the hands of anything from Chernobyl. But if it works…

They say that in space, no one can hear you scream. There’s some truth to that as space travel can be incredibly dangerous at best, and downright lethal without a heaping pile of precautions.

But astronauts might soon be getting help from an unexpected source. Namely, a radiation-slurping fungus harvested off the blown-up reactor in Chernobyl.

Radiation is one of the biggest threats to humans who decide to venture out in space. And it’s not your grandpa’s radiation, we’re talking about space radiation.

What’s the exact difference? We don’t know, but according to NASA spending six months on the International Space Station (ISS) showers astronauts with 160 millisieverts of the stuff.

That’s roughly the same as getting 1,600 chest x-rays. Should we ever make it to Mars, it’ll be even worse – the 18-month trip to the Red Planet would expose any travelers to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation.

Needless to say, that’s not a healthy amount. And so, spacecraft have to be outfitted with massive amount of radiation protection to protect those within.

This protective layer is usually constructed out of aluminum or stainless steel plating. Unfortunately, these plates are heavy and prone to being damaged by anything from temperature changes to space debris.

Pictured: Space, pretty much.

The Super Mold

The latest research, however, suggests that we might want to consider covering the ISS in fungus instead. More specifically, with a mold that’s known to science circles as Cladosporium sphaerospermum.

I’m not typing that again. Let’s just call it the Super Mold.

To give a quick recap of history, Chernobyl was a city in the then-Soviet Ukraine. In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s reactor exploded in the worst nuclear disaster in human history.

The reactor meltdown showered the city of Chernobyl – and plenty of the surrounding area – in a deadly fallout of radiation. To this day, the area remains uninhabitable for humans.

But some things in nature are tougher than we are, and the Super Mold is one of those things. In 1991, cleaning crews in Chernobyl found the fungus thriving close to the exploded reactor, according to the Finnish MTV news.

By all logic, roughly 99% of living things should have no business continuing to be living things under that much radiation. Naturally, the Super Mold intrigued scientists.

They discovered that the Super Mold actually ate radiation, said Engaget. Using a process known as radiosynthesis, the mold transforms deadly gamma radiation into chemical energy.

No, don’t try to make that the next fad diet. It won’t end well, trust us.

Space-age Applications

The next thought after the discovery was, of course, how we as humans could benefit from it. It didn’t take long for researchers to start considering space-based applications for this irradiated little miracle.

So, in December 2018, research company Radio Tango shot the Super Mold into space, wrote Business Insider. On the ISS, astronauts placed the fungus into petri dishes, leaving the other half of the dish empty.

Then, they allowed the the stuff of the cosmos to bombard the dishes. Measurements of the results were promising – the mold-covered sides of the dishes showed 2.4% lower radiation levels than the bare sides.

The results of the study have not been peer-reviewed yet, but researchers are nonetheless theorizing that the Super Mold could make for an effective radiation barrier.

According to them, an 8.5-inch layer of the fungus within wall insulation would provide enough protection that humans could survive on Mars. Imagine that, reaching a new planet to live inside giant mushrooms.

I can’t think of any scifi writer who would’ve thought of that.

Alternatively, another research group suggests that the melanin produced by the fungus could be used in spacesuit cloth materials.

The Super Mold has one significant advantage over metal barriers. As a living organism, it’s able to repair itself and replenish its numbers.

That means that only a very small amount of it is needed when the hypothetical fungus-reinforced spacecraft is launched. The radiation shielding could simply be grown in space, where there’s plenty of radiation for the mold to munch on.

That would save massive amounts of money at launch, too. According to NASA, launching a rocket costs roughly $10,000 per pound.

What do you think? Do fungal spacecraft sound plausible or is it all just a pipe dream? Let us know in the comments!