KEY POINTS

  • Researchers studied fungus samples from Chernobyl
  • The fungus samples were taken to the ISS
  • The study suggested that the fungus can be used to protect astronauts from space radiation

A new study has suggested that the fungus thriving at the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant site in Ukraine could be used to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation during deep-space missions. The authors of the study made the discovery after conducting experiments on the mold.

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Stanford University. It was submitted for publication through the preprint server bioRxiv.

For the study, the researchers analyzed fungus samples taken from the Chernobyl nuclear facility, which was completely destroyed in 1986 due to a reactor explosion. Although the accident occurred over three decades ago, the area still contains high levels of radiation.

The type of fungus collected from the area has been identified as Cladosporium sphaerospermum. It was previously sent to the International Space Station (ISS) to study how it would react to space conditions and cosmic radiation.

After spending about a month aboard the ISS, the fungus displayed a couple of unique properties. One of these is its ability to grow in space.

“Through the design of a subtle yet simple experimental setup, implemented as a small single payload, it could be shown that the melanized fungus C. sphaerospermum can be cultivated in LEO [Low Earth Orbit], while subject to the unique microgravity and radiation environment of the ISS,” the researchers wrote in the abstract of their study.

In addition to its growth, the researchers also learned how the fungus reacted to space radiation. During the experiments conducted on the ISS, the fungus displayed its ability to protect itself against radiation from space. 

“Growth characteristics further suggested that the fungus not only adapts to but thrives on and shields against space radiation, in accordance with analogous Earth-based studies,” the researchers noted.

The researchers suggested that the fungus’ unique properties can be used in future space missions, such as a human expedition to Mars. The authors of the study noted that since the fungus can grow in space, it could be cultivated on protective shields and layers to protect astronauts from the effects of cosmic radiation.

According to NASA, astronauts on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station are exposed to up to 160 millisieverts of radiation. This is equivalent to around 1,600 chest X-rays. An 18-month roundtrip to Mars, however, would expose astronauts to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation, or 10,000 chest X-rays' worth.