NASA Sending Microbial Survivors of Chernobyl Equal to 400 Atomic Bombs to International Space Station





“The fungi collected at the accident site had more melanin than the fungi collected from outside the exclusion zone,” says Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This means the fungi have adapted to the radiation activity and as many as twenty percent were found to be radiotrophic—meaning they grew towards the radiation; they loved it.”

SpaceX and NASA are preparing the next cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station, which contains over 250 different research investigations that the space station crew will carry out over the next few months, including seven strains of fungi straight from Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The microbes will be grown by the crew in microgravity for two weeks before the samples are returned to Earth.


On April 26, 1986, technicians at Chernobyl’s infamous reactor #4 were conducting routine systems testing when the reactor was struck by an unexpected power surge that triggered a chain of events that ultimately caused a complete meltdown, which blanketed the area in deadly radiation, turning it into a barren wasteland. During the incident, scientists estimate that the power plant released as much radioactive material into the environment as 400 atomic bombs, similar the one that devastated Hiroshima, Japan.

“Berkeley National Lab has an agreement that allows them to collect samples from the Chernobyl accident site,” explained Venkateswaran (Venkat for short), who is heading the program to send colonies of these fungi up to the space station.
“Following the accident, fungi were the first organisms to pop up in the radiation-soaked environment and scientists wanted to understand how they can thrive in such an environment.”




Venkat and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab are just one part of a multi-institutional partnership that proposed this study, which aims to better understand how the fungi shield themselves from radiation into order to survive. The team thinks that melanin, the same dark pigment humans have in our skin, helps to shield the fungi from harmful radiation and helps convert that radiation into a food source.

Observable molecular changes within the fungi were isolated to the species collected at and around ground zero. This tells researchers that these changes were brought about by cellular stress from the radiation. They want to duplicate this process to see if new drug therapies can be derived from the fungi. Eight different species of fungi (seven from Chernobyl and one previously grown on station) will be exposed to the stresses of microgravity. The fungi colonies will grow on board the ISS for 14 days, before being returned to Earth. After the samples are returned to JPL, Venkat and his team will compare them to identical strains of fungi grown on the ground.

NASA and the world’s space agencies have future missions planned for Mars, and as we move towards exploring the Red Planet and other worlds in the Solar System, having radiation-resistant plants will be a key factor in success.
At JPL, Venkat has become a leading expert in identifying microbes and preventing them from catching a ride on spacecraft. He has discovered and named 25 new organisms, including 15 since joining JPL.

The Daily Galaxy via Motherboard and JPL


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