RA­DI­A­TION EATERS?

Cosmos - - Gallery -

Th­ese bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent mush­rooms may look oth­er­worldly, but the most alien fea­ture of fungi is that they can har­vest ra­di­a­tion to grow. Sci­en­tists first got a hint of this af­ter the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear plant melt­down in 1986.

In the clean up op­er­a­tion, they no­ticed dark- coloured fungi grow­ing in the con­tam­i­nated soils nearby. Their dark colour was due to melanin – the same pig­ment that colours hu­man skin. Re­searchers thought melanin might be pro­tect­ing the fungi against gamma ra­di­a­tion much as it pro­tects us from UV rays.

But ac­cord­ing to a 2007 study by Eka­te­rina Dada­chova and Ar­turo Casade­vall, then at Al­bert Ein­stein Col­lege of Medicine, fungi use melanin to har­vest the en­ergy of gamma rays. In the lab, gamma rays spurred the growth of a species called

Cryp­to­coc­cus ne­o­for­mans. But only if its melanin-pro­duc­ing gene was in­tact.

CREDIT: STEVE AXFORD

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