By Anupum Pant
On April 26th 1986 a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine and is still considered the worst nuclear power plant accident ever (another one happened in Japan recently). The massive explosion spewed out huge amounts of radioactive particles into the air which spread till Europe.
As a result of this tragedy, it was reported that 31 people died within a few months due to acute radiation sickness. In total, more than 200 people were affected. It is estimated that deaths caused due to cancer by Chernobyl may be around 4,000 among the 5 million persons living in the surrounding area.
The disaster was responsible for turning green trees, in the 10 square kilometers of pine forest around the reactor, into red trees. Eventually the trees died and the forest has been called the “Red Forest” ever since.
Today, an area covering 30 km in all directions from the power plant has been labeled as the “zone of alienation“. Mostly it is uninhabited by humans (excluding those 300 odd residents who have decided that they won’t leave). Till date, the radiation levels remain extremely high. Workers who are responsible for rebuilding the place are only allowed to work for a maximum of five hours a day for one month and are asked to take a 15 day rest after that.
With an environment where the radiation level even today is about 500 times higher than the normal environment, it is estimated that the area will remain uninhabitable for humans for the next 20,000 years.
But something lives inside the still-highly-radioactive ruins
Few years back when a robot was sent into the devastated reactor, it returned with samples from the walls of the ruined power plant. These samples contained a black colored substance which piqued the researchers’ interests.
After performing several tests on these samples they concluded that the black samples comprised of two kinds of fungi. Both of them contained a pigment called melanin (the pigment that colors our skins). The fungi had been using melanin to convert radiation into chemical energy. It was mind-boggling for everyone to learn that amidst the toxic sarcophagus a creature was living and was feeding on gamma radiation for making food and to grow. Scientists decided to call it, the “radiotrophic fungi” – the fungi which feeds on gamma radiation.
It is like plants using solar radiation for making food, just that, in this case, the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation being used, is different.
Feeding the spacemen
Scientists say, since the pigment is also present in our skins, and as ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, in the future, astronauts could probably rely on melanin as a source of food during long missions or for living on other planets; Just like the radiotrophic fungi does.
According to Dr Casadevall:
While it wouldn’t be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid.