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Scientific Study of Chernobyl Fungus as Protection against Space Radiation



Researchers evaluate a fungus is known to grow in radiation environments to see if it can protect people traveling in space.

A fungus studied has survived – though thrive – in areas around the former Chernobyl nuclear power center in Ukraine. In 1986, a reactor there exploded and caught fire, sending a lot of radiation into the air.

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear disaster in the world. The accident caused widespread damage to people and other living things in the area. Some types of fungi, however, continue to experience growth within highly radioactive environments.

Researchers are studying a substance found in some fungi called melanin. This is a pigment which gives color to the skin, hair and eyes. Studies have shown that melanin in the cell walls of some fungi can withstand radiation and convert it into chemical energy.

Recently, a report about a type of melanin containing fungus was published on the internet in “pre-printed”

; form. This means that the research has not yet completed a peer review process.

This image shows the development of fungus growth measured by researchers in the samples sent to the International Space Station.  (Credit Credit: BioRxiv)

This image shows the development of fungus growth measured by researchers in the samples sent to the International Space Station. (Credit Credit: BioRxiv)

The study is a project of scientists from the University of North Carolina and Stanford University of California. Scientists have reported that the fungus, called Cladosporium sphaerospermum, was sent to the International Space Station – ISS – for testing.

The earth’s atmosphere and magnetic shield protect us from the intense radiation found throughout the universe. But the US space agency NASA notes that while the ISS is sitting inside Earth’s magnetic field, astronauts receive more than 10 times the radiation we receive on Earth. It warns that astronauts who spend long periods of time in places like the moon or Mars will face high levels of harmful radiation.

The researchers said that the Chernobyl-containing melanin-containing fungus could be used to create protective shields for future astronauts.

In the report, the researchers said that the growth of the fungus on the ISS was observed within 30 days. Radiation levels are also measured. During the test, the measured radiation level dropped “by at least 1.82 percent and potential up to 5.04 percent, ”the report said.

On Wednesday, March 23, 2011 photo of an engineer Sergei Horloogijn measuring a radiation dose rate, as workers clear the forest near the village of Babchin, about 30 km apart around Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

On Wednesday, March 23, 2011 photo of an engineer Sergei Horloogijn measuring a radiation dose rate, as workers clear the forest near the village of Babchin, about 30 km apart around Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

The researchers said the experiment showed that “that fungus is not the only adapts in, but succeeds and shields against radiation radiation. “They mentioned that because the fungus grows itself in high radiation environments, small amounts can be sent into space and then grown in large amounts.

Further testing is planned with similar fungi.

Last year, researchers from Johns Hopkins University said they sent melanin from a similar fungus, called Cryptococcus neoformans, to the ISS. This fungus lives in environments around the world and is found growing in the area around Chernobyl.

One of the researchers on that project was Radamés JB Cordero, along with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Cordero said in a statement that the purpose of the ISS research was to see how melanin from the fungus could protect astronauts and space equipment. But he added that radiation is also a big concern for healthcare providers and patients exposed in the material during medical treatment.

“If you have a material that can act as a shield against radiation, it will not only protect people and structures in space, but also have a very real benefits for the people here on Earth, “he said.

I am Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from BioRxiv, Johns Hopkins University and the CDC. George Grow is the editor.

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Words in This Story

fungus – n. a type of plant without leaves that gets food from other living or decaying things

thrive – v. to grow well

pigment – n. a substance that gives color

peer – adj. a person holding the same position or social standing as the other members of a group

review n. the process of considering something to decide whether to make changes to it

shield – n. something used as protection against harmful substances

potential – adj. having the possibility to do something

adapt v. to change behavior to fit a new situation

expose – v. subject to danger from a harmful action or condition

benefits – n. something that will help you or give you an advantage


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