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Einstein researchers' discover 'radiation-eating' fungi

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  • Robert Seeberger
    Finding could trigger recalculation of Earth s energy balance and help feed astronauts http://www.innovations-report.com/html/reports/studies/report-84775.html
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2007
      Finding could trigger recalculation of Earth's energy balance and help
      feed astronauts


      Scientists have long assumed that fungi exist mainly to decompose
      matter into chemicals that other organisms can then use. But
      researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva
      University have found evidence that fungi possess a previously
      undiscovered talent with profound implications: the ability to use
      radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their

      The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or
      animal kingdom, so finding that they're making food in addition to
      breaking it down means that Earth's energetics-in particular, the
      amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy-may
      need to be recalculated," says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of
      microbiology & immunology at Einstein and senior author of the study,
      published May 23 in PLoS ONE.

      The ability of fungi to live off radiation could also prove useful to
      people: "Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space,
      astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food
      source on long missions or for colonizing other planets," says Dr.
      Ekaterina Dadachova, associate professor of nuclear medicine and
      microbiology & immunology at Einstein and lead author of the study.

      Those fungi able to "eat" radiation must possess melanin, the pigment
      found in many if not most fungal species. But up until now, melanin's
      biological role in fungi-if any--has been a mystery.

      "Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical
      energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research
      suggests that melanin can use a different portion of the
      electromagnetic spectrum-ionizing radiation-to benefit the fungi
      containing it," says Dr. Dadachova.

      The research began five years ago when Dr. Casadevall read on the Web
      that a robot sent into the still-highly-radioactive damaged reactor at
      Chernobyl had returned with samples of black, melanin-rich fungi that
      were growing on the reactor's walls. "I found that very interesting
      and began discussing with colleagues whether these fungi might be
      using the radiation emissions as an energy source," says Dr.

      To test this idea, the Einstein researchers performed a variety of in
      vivo tests using three genetically diverse fungi and four measures of
      cell growth. The studies consistently showed that ionizing radiation
      significantly enhances the growth of fungi that contain melanin.

      For example, two types of fungi--one that was induced to make melanin
      (Crytococcus neoformans) and another that naturally contains it
      (Wangiella dermatitidis)-were exposed to levels of ionizing radiation
      approximately 500 times higher than background levels. Both species
      grew significantly faster (as measured by the number of colony forming
      units and dry weight) than when exposed to standard background

      The researchers also carried out physico-chemical studies into
      melanin's ability to capture radiation. By measuring the electron spin
      resonance signal after melanin was exposed to ionizing radiation, they
      showed that radiation interacts with melanin to alter its electron
      structure. This is an essential step for capturing radiation and
      converting it into a different form of energy to make food.

      Dr. Casadevall notes that the melanin in fungi is no different
      chemically from the melanin in our skin. "It's pure speculation but
      not outside the realm of possibility that melanin could be providing
      energy to skin cells," he says. "While it wouldn't be enough energy to
      fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid."

      Radiophagites Maru

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