Scientists have long assumed that fungi exist mainly to decompose matter into chemicals that other organisms can then use. But researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found evidence that fungi possess a previously undiscovered talent with profound implications: the ability to use radioactivity as an energy source for making food and spurring their growth.
"The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or animal kingdom, so finding that they're making food in addition to breaking it down means that Earth's energeticsin particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energymay need to be recalculated," says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of microbiology & immunology at Einstein and senior author of the study, published May 23 in PLoS ONE.
The ability of fungi to live off radiation could also prove useful to people: "Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets," says Dr. Ekaterina Dadachova, associate professor of nuclear medicine and microbiology & immunology at Einstein and lead author of the study.
Those fungi able to "eat" radiation must possess melanin, the pigment found in many if not most fungal species. But up until now, melanin's biological role in fungiif any--has been a mystery.
"Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research suggests that melanin can use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrumionizing radiationto benefit the fungi containing it," says Dr. Dadachova.
The research began five years ago when Dr. Casadevall read on the Web that a robot sent into the still-highly-radioactive damaged reactor at Chernobyl had returned with samples of black, melanin-rich fungi that were growing on the reactor's
Contact: Karen Gardner
Albert Einstein College of Medicine