S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the HBO series, numerous books, video games, and movies, guided visits that generate revenue, and illegal tours – these are far from all the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It also led to thousands of direct and indirect deaths, evacuation of entire villages, and billions of dollars spent. However, the modern exclusion area is an inevitable source for scientific studies that answer how to protect yourself from radiation. 

Recently, researchers discovered that one specific species of fungi found in Chernobyl can consume radiation! Hence, they can help scientists to develop better products for healthcare and aerospace industries. Let’s figure out why is it important.  

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The Chernobyl Disaster 

Undoubtedly, the accident that occurred in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is the worst catastrophe of this type ever. Together with the disaster in Fukushima in 2011, it rated at seven on the INES – the highest rank of severity for nuclear disasters. In terms of expenses, the Soviet accident cost around $70 billion.  

The Chernobyl disaster that dates back in 1986 relates to 42 direct deaths, less than 100 delayed fatalities, and more than 16,000 predicted casualties due to long-term radiation impact! As well, don’t forget about other problems: abortions, cancer, mutations, environmental contamination, forced evacuation, inability to re-settle the exclusion zone, etc. 

Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a unique reserve where nature tries to fix what we destroyed. Plants and animals return to these places, where they don’t suffer from humans. Even endangered wild Przewalski’s horses were spotted in this area! It seems that the disaster still can help scientists – through fungi that feed on radiation. 

Chernobyl nuclear station, control room
A control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Cryptococcus Neoformans Melanin Fungi 

Actually, different academics discovered the radiotrophic fungal organisms back in the early 1990s. During works inside the destroyed reactor and near it, teams found around 200 species of radiation-eating fungi. They lived in highly-contaminated areas where other life forms can barely exist. Similar species were spotted in high-altitude areas where they consume UV radiation not filtered by the ozone layer. 

Following the Russian studies, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine started their own experiments. Among all species, they defined one with the best melanin absorption. In 2007, they presented the results stating that C. neoformans organisms are literally eating ionizing radiation. Moreover, in 2020, NASA scientists revealed new details dedicated to potential use cases of these fungi. 

If you want to find other healthcare-related insights, feel free to check our studies! 

Unique Features 

Cryptococcus neoformans melanin-containing fungi is a yeast that can exist in animals, plants, and, as we know, in areas with extreme radiation levels. This fungus causes cryptococcosis after infection. Thus, people with weak immunity should be careful when working with this species or researching it. 

But we’re interested in other characteristics. Earlier, when the fungi found in Chernobyl were studied for the first time, researchers were shocked that any organism can survive such radiation impact. Later, scientists found the reason – melanin. Fungi radiation consumption is possible thanks to this pigment that also makes our skin dark. It’s known how does melanin protect the skin from UV rays, and we also understand now that fungal species can go further. 

The process called radiosynthesis is pretty similar to photosynthesis. In this case, melanin absorption of radiation is also similar to the consumption of light. Our fungi eat ionizing radiation and turn it into chemical energy for growth, just like regular plants transform CO2 into oxygen. 

Cells of the fungi, close-up
C. neoformans in detail, source: Public Health Image Library 

Well, let’s summarize the uniqueness of these fungi found in Chernobyl: 

  • They contain melanin that converts radiation into energy.  
  • They live in the destroyed nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl plant. 
  • They may use non-ionizing radiation to grow, too.  
  • They may be helpful for our researches and development.  

Nevertheless, remember that C. neoformans is only one species among hundreds of fungi that feed on radiation. Ekaterina Dadacheva says that a lot of melanin-containing spores were found in the Cretaceous period when the Earth’s magnetic shield weakened. 

Potential Uses 

Thanks to the discovered organism, we can find more answers to questions like “how to protect yourself from nuclear radiation”. Talking about benefits for humans, NASA scientists define three potential developments. To test one of them, they even sent melanin samples to the International Space Station to check how does melanin protect the skin and other surfaces. But fungi can help us in other ways, too. 

Let’s check the use cases in detail: 

  • A universal space sunscreen. First and foremost, the natural ability of melanin to consume UV rays and ionizing radiation can benefit people everywhere. It’s possible to develop a sunscreen that protects skin and structures from solar damage.  
  • Biological energy storages. The second option relates to energy consumption and storing. During the radiosynthesis, radiation-eating fungi produce energy. Thus, we can use fungi strands as more ecological alternatives to solar panels, for instance.  
  • Protection for radiation-affected zones. Finally, Kasthuri Venkateswaran from NASA believes that the studies fungus is perfect protection from radiation. It can minimize the damage for patients during chemotherapy or engineers at nuclear plants. 

Overall, the example of C. neoformans fungi that feed on radiation is another proof of natural power. Humans should observe nature and learn from it to survive, undoubtedly.  

NASA scientists with melanin from fungi
Researchers with melanin samples, source: Johns Hopkins University 

Living with Radiosynthesis 

This Chernobyl discovery isn’t the game-changing study that can save all people from cancer or stop all wars. But the particular fungi species and the process of radiosynthesis can reshape several industries.  

Healthcare organizations may get a new efficient way to protect people from radiation. Using the main ability of the fungus, healthcare scientists can develop a new type of radiation-resistant materials. Potentially, these developments can reduce the harm from chemotherapy, MRI, and X-rays.  

Simultaneously, aerospace industry is another area with great potential for C. neoformans. For instance, the discovered fungi combined with a space sunscreen structure can protect people from solar radiation. As well, space manufacturing teams may create a protection for rockets and satellites to boost their durability.  

We will watch for the news related to this species of fungi found in Chernobyl and keep you updated. Subscribe to the Diceus blog to get relevant news, development guides, and studies!