Radiation-Resistant Mutants at Chernobyl Pave the Way for Life on Mars

Radiotrophic beer is involved.

by Becky Ferreira
May 7 2017, 8:18pm

Comic book logic dictates that a high dose of radiation will turn you in the Hulk, Godzilla, Radioactive Man, or any number of other radiation-induced superbeings. In real life, it's more likely to be a cause of deleterious mutations than a shortcut to enhanced abilities, as shown by major ecological damage in nuclear meltdown fallout zones, like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

These contaminated regions have become a popular destination for scientists interested in the immediate and long-term impact of radiation on wildlife, which has led to the formation of intriguing niche disciplines, like radioecology and radiobiology.

Watch more on Motherboard in 360/VR: Nuclear From Above

Understanding how living organisms adapt to radiation doses has a range of applications, from medicine to conservation, but one of the most overlooked is preparation for long-duration human space missions and interplanetary colonization, both of which involve sustained exposure to higher radiation doses than what we experience on Earth's surface.

An experiment conducted on the International Space Station (ISS) last year examined this idea with the help of eight fungi species sourced from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. These strains sprung up in the wake of the 1986 meltdown, and two of them Cladosporium moulds—seem to prefer radioactive surfaces. The fungal samples were curated by a team led by Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who goes by Venkat for short.

Read More: Chernobyl Microbes Are Heading to the International Space Station

"The radiation seen at Chernobyl is high, but this black fungi popped up first [after the meltdown] compared even to the bacteria," Venkat told me over the phone. "That is how we selected those fungi, from such a radiation-rich environment. These fungi persisted due to some sort of protein-coding and biomolecule information that protect against the radiation level."

Read the full story at Motherboard.