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.