General, Research, Technology

Can mushrooms from Chernobyl save future cosmonauts from radiation?

Every time I look at the night sky I think about howit is a pity that most of us will never step on the surface of another celestial body and see our planet from space. Agree, I would like to look at the Moon and other planets a little closer at least once in my life. But the last time a human foot set foot on the lunar surface was in December 1972, and today we are not sending people into space, but robotic devices. There are many reasons for this approach to space exploration, but the name of the main one is space radiation, which, with a long stay in space, poses a serious threat to the health of future space travelers. A recent experiment with the microscopic fungi Cladosporium sphaerospermum aboard the International Space Station offers a surprising solution to the problem of cosmic radiation: an anti-conventional mushroom shield.

Maybe Chernobyl mushrooms will make space travel a reality

Radiation is an invisible threat

By cosmic radiation, scientists meanelectromagnetic radiation of extraterrestrial origin. At the same time, a significant part of the radiation is a more or less continuous flow of plasma - the solar wind, which is essentially a continuation of the outer layers of the solar atmosphere (solar corona). Our planet is protected from cosmic radiation by the atmosphere, but in open space, a person is defenseless. This is why radiation is one of the biggest threats to the safety of astronauts on long missions.

Unfortunately, the completeness of our knowledge of the impactradiation on the body is the result of a tragedy. The largest disaster in the history of nuclear energy occurred on April 26, 1986. As a result of the explosion of the fourth power unit of the station, the core of the nuclear reactor was completely destroyed, the building of the power unit was also partially destroyed, and a large release of radioactive materials into the environment occurred. Total 32 kilograms of radioactive material and almost 18 kilograms of plutonium isotopes were released into the atmosphere.

The world is still struggling with the consequences of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Exclusion zone map, located on the territory of Ukraine and Belarus. Source: RIA Novosti

After the accident, there wasa restricted area with a radius of 30 kilometers was organized, which was later expanded. The common man knows this territory as the “exclusion zone”. Scientists regularly measure radiation levels in homes, clothing, drinking water and soil. The measurement results show that fish and mushrooms are especially infected in the exclusion zone - the level of cesium-137 and strontium-90 is much higher than the norm.

But who knows, may be contaminated with radiationmushrooms - the key to a successful space future for humanity? At least the results of the research carried out on board the ISS showed very interesting results.

You will be interested: Where we are not: the exclusion zone of Chernobyl has become a nature reserve

Mushrooms that feed on radiation

The microscopic fungi Cladosporium sphaerospermum are known to thrive in high radiation environments through a process called radio synthesis. Note that C. sphaerospermum is an extremophilic species that thrives in areas with high radiation levels, such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. For C. sphaerospermum, radiation is not a threat - it is food.

This mushroom is able to transformgamma radiation into chemical energy through a process called radio synthesis. (Think of this process as photosynthesis, but replace sunlight with radiation.) The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus can serve as an effective shield from cosmic radiation for future space travelers.

FROM. sphaerospermum uses melanin - the same pigment that gives color to our skin, hair and eyes - to convert X-rays and gamma rays into chemical energy. Scientists do not yet fully understand this process. But the study notes: “It is believed that the large amount of melanin in the cell walls of these fungi mediates electron transfer and thus provides a net gain in energy.

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In addition, the mushroom reproduces itself, whichmeans that astronauts can potentially "grow" new radiation shielding in deep space missions, instead of relying on an expensive and complex interplanetary supply chain. However, researchers were not sure if C. sphaerospermum would survive on the space station.

Niels I.N. Averesch, co-author of the study published on the bioRxiv preprint server, notes:

While on earth most sourcesthe radiation is gamma and / or X-rays, radiation in space and on Mars has a completely different form and includes high-energy particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X-rays and gamma rays, so even the survival of the fungus on the ISS was not a given.

To check the "radio resistance" C. sphaerospermum in space, Petri dishes containing a thin layer of the fungus were exposed to cosmic radiation on board the ISS. Also on display were fungus-free dishes. The results showed that the mushroom reduced radiation levels by about 2%.

Petri dish with samples of microscopic fungi that feed on radiation

After analyzing the results, the researchers calculated that the approximately 20 cm layer of C. sphaerospermum "Could largely negate the annual dose equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars." Agree it would be significantan advantage for astronauts. After all, an astronaut who has been on Mars for a year would be exposed to about 66 times more radiation than the average person on earth.

However, to be sure of what to createsuch an anti-radiation shield may need further research. It is likely that C. sphaerospermum will be used in combination with other radiation protection technologies on board spacecraft. But the findings highlight that relatively simple biotechnology can bring huge benefits in upcoming space missions.

“Thus C. sphaerospermum and melanin could prove invaluable in providing adequate protection for researchers in future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, ”the study authors write. Do you think scientists will be able to solve the problem of space gravity? We will wait for the answer here, as well as in the comments to this article.