chernobyl radiation eating fungi
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
February 11, 2020 ·  3 min read

Chernobyl shocker as fungi that eats radiation found inside nuclear reactor

A large portion of the CO2 emissions produced by the United States comes from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. If the US wants to make a serious dent in their carbon emissions, it is imperative that they find an alternative source of electricity generation.

Nuclear energy is a great alternative to fossil fuels because it doesn’t emit CO2 and, unlike wind or solar power, is consistently reliable. For this reason, it is known as a baseload energy source. Unfortunately, there is a lot of fear, hostility, and misunderstanding surrounding nuclear power, which has only gotten worse since catastrophes like Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. 

Risks of Nuclear Power

This fear is not completely unfounded since there are some dangers surrounding radioactive material. This is because the term radioactive refers to material that is actively emitting radiation. 

The gamma rays emitted by electromagnetic radiation have one hundred thousand times more energy than visible light, and radioactive material can also emit beta and alpha particles that are highly energetic. This can be very damaging to the molecules in our bodies and has the potential to cause cancer [1].

Nuclear power also inevitably produces radioactive waste, which stays active for a very long time and is quite dangerous. This presents major problems in terms of storage [1].

Radiation-Eating Fungus

A fungus has been observed inside the walls of Chernobyl that “eats” radiation [2]. 

The black fungus was first found on the walls of the abandoned nuclear reactor in 1991, five years after the deadly explosion that shook Ukraine. It is known as a radiation extremophile, which means it is capable of surviving in extreme environments, in this case, intense exposure to radiation. These types of organisms are able to absorb a wide spectrum of radiation while protecting their DNA from being damaged [3,4].

Scientists have also found that in addition to not being destroyed by the radiation, the fungi are actually attracted to it- it grows toward radiation [3].

How Does This Fungus Eat Radiation?

This peculiar fungus is able to absorb radiation because it contains large amounts of melanin. Melanin is the pigment in your skin that is responsible for its color. It’s what makes it lighter or darker. 

The fungi’s high concentration of melanin allows it to absorb normally harmful rays and convert it into chemical energy. It does this in a similar way that plants absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen and glucose via photosynthesis [3].

What Does This Mean?

There are several important ways this fungus could be used to benefit humans. Firstly, it could be incredibly useful in cleaning up disaster sites. The fungi is a natural way to remove radiation [5].

It can also keep people safe in environments that would expose them to high levels of radiation. At Chernobyl, for example, there are extreme amounts of ambient radiation that is very dangerous to anyone who enters. This fungus can be used as a “radiation blocker” to treat protective suits, or even the entire inside of the plant to reduce the levels of ambient radiation [2].

This discovery could have massive implications for space travel as well. There are high levels of ambient radiation onboard the space station, and this fungus could reduce the deadly amounts of cosmic radiation, which is one of the biggest obstacles facing scientists who want to safely send people into space [2].

There are other organisms that eat radiation in this way, including both fungi and bacteria, with different mechanisms for absorbing or tolerating radiation. A review published in the NCBI explains:

“[S]ome populations of microorganisms thrive under different types of radiation due to defensive mechanisms provided by primary and secondary metabolic products, i.e., extremolytes and extremozymes.” [6]

This means that each of these different organisms could have uses in a variety of areas, including medicine, manufacturing, and safety [2].

More research needs to be done before the fungus can be widely used, but this discovery is very promising in the field of space travel and radiation.