After fungi were found growing inside the highly radioactive Chernobyl nuclear reactor (after the disaster in 1986), Ekaterina Dadachova wondered how the fungi could survive and even prosper. She found that fungi were able to use the radiation as an energy source.
Therefore, Dadachova compared the growth of fungi exposed to ionizing gamma radiation with those not exposed. She discovered that three species of fungi with the dark pigment melanin grew faster than the unexposed fungi.
Melanin is a brown or black pigment found in the skin, hair, fur, feathers, eyes, and other locations within humans and animals that determine color. The fungi use the melanin, as Dadachova describes, similar to the way plants use chlorophyll to take in sunlight and convert it to energy in order to grow.
Dadachova and her team of researchers used a technique called electron spin resonance (ESR), or electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), for their experiment on the fungi. ESR is a spectroscopic technique to study chemical species containing one or more unpaired electrons.
Based on her results, Dadachova contends that these melanized fungi could be used to feed space travelers on long extended trips into space. An abundance of high-energy ionizing gamma radiation in space could allow astronauts to use fungi as a food source while traveling to Mars or colonizing the Moon.
At the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Ekaterina Dadachova is an associate professor within the Department of Nuclear Medicine and an associate professor within the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, both at Yeshiva University in New York City.
The Dadachova study “Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhances the Growth of Melanized Fungi” was published May 23, 2007 in the online journal PLoS One. The other collaborators of the study are Ruth A. Bryan, Xianchun Huang, Tiffany Moade, Andrew D. Schweitzer, Philip Aisen, Joshua D. Nosanchuk, Arturo Casadevall.