Fungi from Chernobyl Reactor Could Save Astronauts from Space Radiation

Could Chernobyl really be the key to colonization of Mars?
Derya Ozdemir
Cryptococcus neoformans fungiDr. Grahan Beards/Wikimedia Commons

Once you get people up there to Mars, it becomes obvious very fast that the distance is not the only hindrance, since protecting astronauts from the deadly cosmic rays is a pretty imminent issue. Such ambitious cosmic journeys require smart solutions.

And some fungi, it seems. While it may sound like a sci-fi movie scenario, building shields using a radiation-absorbing fungus that grows close to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant might be the idea that scientists have been waiting for so long.

It was tested on the ISS

The unusual solution has been reported by the John Hopkins University and Stanford scientists after the fungus was able to block some cosmic rays after being tested on the International Space Station.

An extremely thin sample of the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans was able to block and absorb 2% of the cosmic rays that hit it while it was onboard the ISS. While that's not enough to protect the astronauts, it should be noted that the sample was only two millimeters thick. 


Fungus self-replicates and self-heals

The fungi were originally found sprouting up the walls of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear reactor which had been flooded with gamma five years after the disaster.

Nils Averesch, Stanford researcher and also co-author of the study, told New Scientist, "What makes the fungus great is that you only need a few grams to start out, It self-replicates and self-heals, so even if there’s a solar flare that damages the radiation shield significantly, it will be able to grow back in a few days."

A "sunblock" against toxic rays in drug form

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a research scientist at NASA who led the experiments on the Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, stated that the fungi could be used as a "sunblock" against toxic rays after we've extracted its radiation-absorbing power and manufactured it in drug form.

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Its benefits wouldn't end there since it would allow cancer patients, airline pilots, and nuclear power plant engineers to continue their lives without the fear of absorbing deadly rays. It could be also weaved into the material of spacesuit fabric.

A 21-centimeters thick layer would keep future Mars settlers safe

However, perhaps the most impressive part of their study is that a layer of the fungus around 21-centimeters thick could "largely negate the annual dose-equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars."  

The idea of colonizing Mars seems to become more approachable as days go by, and we can't wait for more steps to be taken.

The study was made online last week.

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