22 years ago, on 26 April 1986, reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in Ukraine, blew apart, spewing radioactive dust and debris far and wide.Cool, a fungi that is thriving in a radioactive wasteland.
Ever since, a 30 km 'exclusion zone' has existed around the contaminated site, accessible to those with special clearance only. It's quite easy, then, to conjure an apocalyptic vision of the area; to imagine an eerily deserted wasteland, utterly devoid of life.
But the truth is quite the opposite. The exclusion zone is teeming with wildlife of all shapes and sizes, flourishing unhindered by human interference and seemingly unfazed by the ever-present radiation. Most remarkable, however, is not the life buzzing around the site, but what's blooming inside the perilous depths of the reactor.
But it's also the abode of some very hardy fungi which researchers believe aren't just tolerating the severe radiation, but actually harnessing its energy to thrive.
How does it do that?
In 1999, a robot sent to map the inside of the reactor returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin, which also colours your skin.via Cosmos
Though melanin is typically associated with 'protective' properties – absorbing and safely transforming different electromagnetic wavelengths, such as DNA-damaging ultraviolet light – the researchers had an inkling that a more extraordinary phenomenon was allowing the fungi to prosper; something still involving the combination of melanin and radiation, but beyond the bounds of radioactive protection.
They were able to show radiated melanin capable of boosting a type of reaction important in metabolism – called an oxidation-reduction reaction – four times faster when exposed to the influence of caesium-137.
They also saw a change in the pigment's electronic structure. This, Dadachova says, is evidence "that melanin transformed part of the ionising radiation energy into the energy of electrons, which represents the 'chemical' form of energy [that] fungi could potentially use in their metabolism."
Taken together, the researchers think their results do indeed hint that fungi can live off ionising radiation, harnessing its energy through melanin to somehow generate a new form of biologically usable growing power.