Fungi from Chernobyl blast zone could protect astronauts from radiation

A Ferris wheel and a carousel are abandoned in the amusement park of the ghost town of Prypyat, adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. (AFP)

Fungi taken from the Chernobyl blast site could protect humans from radiation during deep space missions and help us settle on the Moon and Mars, experts claim.

Humankind needs to develop new technologies to expand its space travel horizons – but galactic cosmic radiation remains a barrier to long-distance space voyages.

Scientists now say humans need maximum shielding from harmful space rays if we are ever to start new civilisations on the Moon or Red Planet.

But the answer to this cosmic conundrum may lie closer to home – in the radioactive bowels of the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in modern day Ukraine.

A reactor at the former plant exploded to devastating effect in the 1986 disaster presided over by the Soviet Union – as portrayed in last year’s hit Sky Atlantic series, Chernobyl.

The blast unleashed a mushroom of smoke, with thousands of potential deaths caused by the radiation and an entire city, Pripyat, evacuated and abandoned to this day.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in May 1986, a few weeks after the disaster. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images)

But strains of fungi are flourishing at the scene by absorbing radioactive energy for their own use.

Amazingly, researchers sent a sample variety of radioactive fungus found at Chernobyl – Cladosporium sphaerospermum – to the International Space Station for testing.

It was monitored in a petri dish for 30 days and was found to reduce radiation by about 2 per cent compared to a non radioactive sample.

A sample of the fungus from Chernobyl was sent to the space station for testing (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

This alone isn’t enough to shield humans from radiation.

But the experts predict a 21cm thick layer of this fungus could ‘largely negate the annual dose-equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars.’

The team of US researchers said: ‘With concrete efforts to return humans to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program and establish a permanent foothold on the next rock from Earth by 2028, humankind reaches for Mars as the next big leap in space exploration.

‘In preparation for prolonged human exploration missions venturing past Earth-orbit and deeper into space, the required capabilities significantly increase.’

Fungus from Chernobyl that could provide clues about radiation resistance (Space Tango, Inc)

‘Therefore, any mission scenario must include innovative solutions that can meet the needs and address the hazards of prolonged habitation on celestial surfaces.

‘The foremost threat to the short – and long-term health of astronauts on long-duration deep-space missions is radiation.’

Earthlings will, on average, be exposed to about six measures of radiation dose known as Millisievert (MSV) a year.

But the average astronaut on the International Space Station is zapped by 166 MSV over the same stretch.

Chernobyl was a hit series on Sky Atlantic (Credits: HBO/Liam Daniel)

Graham Shunk, Xavier Gomez and Nils Averesch – from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Stanford University – carried out the study.

Reflecting on their findings, they added: ‘Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.’


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