Digging in odd corners

I like to explore the odder bits of biology: deep sea worms that get their energy from symbiotic bacteria which in turn make food from hydrothermal seeps without any help from solar energy, photosynthetic sea slugs, mysterious undersea creatures.

But here’s one that was new to me: fungi that eat gamma radiation. No really. We think of fungi as decomposers, if we think of them at all, breaking down dead plants and animals to keep the carrion from overwhelming us. But some fungi have melanin in their cell walls, the same pigment responsible for human coloration. These black fungi grow faster in the presence of gamma radiation.

The initial clue came from observing that these black fungi were thriving at Chernobyl, and trying to figure out why. Scientists tried growing them with and without gamma radiation, and studied the chemistry of melanin to discover whether it could be working kind of like chlorophyl does in photosynthesis. And yes, it might be. Not everyone is convinced: other scientists think the melanin is purely protective.

The idea that fungi could be getting energy from gamma radiation via melanin has a couple of science-fictional implications. First and most obvious is that humans could raise black fungi in space, exposed to radiation. But we have melanin too: what if we too could get energy from gamma radiation? Wouldn’t that be neat?

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