The Chernobyl fungus that discovered a “new form of photosynthesis” and that ended up on the International Space Station
April 26, 1986 the story stopped in Chernobyl. Since then, thousands of eyes have been observing the vicinity of Pripyat, in Ukraine, with a mixture of curiosity and fear. This is how in the early 1990s, scientists studying the area they realized there were fungi.
There were many mushrooms. A lot of. So many that a microbiologist from the Kiev Institute of Microbiology and Virology, Nelli Zhdanova, traveled to the area to study what were those mushrooms they were conquering not just the walls of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor but every inch of land that surrounded it.
The mystery of brown mushrooms
Zhdanova and her team found more than 200 different types of mushrooms. Something already very surprising, but perhaps the most curious thing is that the vast majority of them contained melanin. Melanin, which is known to darken human skin and hair, not only ‘colored’ fungi but (as we know) absorbed radiation and protects the body from its effects.
It was not the only site where melanin fungi had been found. Although they are relatively rare, they have been found in high mountain regions and in polar areas. That is, in places with few nutrients and high exposure to ultraviolet rays. Zhdanova’s results left a question in the air: Could we have found radiosynthesis?
The dawn of radiosynthesis
Radiosynthesis was a process theorized by the Russian scientist SI Kuznetsov in 1956 and basically consists of capturing and metabolizing ionizing radiation in a way analogous to what plants do during photosynthesis. For years it was just that, a theory.
But a team from the Albert Einstein New York School of Medicine decided to pursue the topic. Ekaterina Dadachova and Arturo Casadevall wondered if, indeed, melanin could play an important role in metabolic reactions.
In 2007 they discovered thatindeed, the pigment could play a key role in metabolic oxidation. In fact, the researchers induced a colony of C. neoformans to produce melanin and when exposed to a source of radiation ionize you 500 times higher than normal, his growth skyrocketed. Something that also happened with the Chernobyl mushrooms.
That is, the fungi that contained melanin could, indeed, generate energy under certain conditions. And since then we have been trying to take advantage of this. Since many of those mushrooms are edible, the idea of using this property on long journeys through space was promising. There were those who did not give a penny (3 cents) for her.
In 2017, the genome of a group of mushrooms that had been grown on the International Space Station Y gave us fundamental keys to continue understanding our world. In fact, in April 2021 it was discovered a new species of bacteria also in the ISS that has certain minimums to survive on Mars.
With this we see two aspects: the intention is maintained to experiment with the perseverance of life as we know it (even if it is microbiological) in conditions as extreme as outer space and what we already knew and sometimes forget, that we still have a lot to discover about the planet (and your immediate neighborhood). In fact, in 2018 another type of photosynthesis was discovered, without even having to leave the stratosphere behind.