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Fungi are weird
July 25, 2008 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Silent spring : Deep in the radioactive bowels of the smashed Chernobyl reactor, a strange new lifeform is blooming.
posted by Burhanistan (46 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pics or it didn't happen.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:46 AM on July 25, 2008


1) Melanin-containing fungi exposed to the radiation – even when nutrient-starved on purpose – grew significantly larger and up to 2.5 times faster...

Unnuke them from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

2) They chow down on everything from decaying plant matter to the more exotic fare of asbestos and jet fuel.

Asbestos is a mineral. Sounds like they capture the iron and bind the remainder so it doesn't get in our lungs.

3) It also raises the possibility that fungi might be using melanin to secretly harvest visible and ultraviolet light for growth

omgracist

4) And because the fungi don't actually 'eat' radioactive material, but simply use the energy it radiates, Dadachova said, they're in no danger of becoming radioactive themselves.

I'm pretty sure that's wrong. For instance, fusion reactors can become radioactive over time because the particles zooming around hit, and isotopify (or whatever the term is), the container they are in. Why wouldn't that happen to the fungi? Just because they safely convert some radiation into chemical energy doesn't mean it all gets converted.
posted by DU at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2008


In Soviet Russia, shrooms eat you and they see colors!

so sorry
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:55 AM on July 25, 2008 [7 favorites]


Duuuuude, I bet those shrooms will get you higher than a motherfucker.
posted by The Straightener at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


There is fungus growing on my keyboard that appears to be living on nothing but my curiosity.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:02 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that's wrong. For instance, fusion reactors can become radioactive over time because the particles zooming around hit, and isotopify (or whatever the term is), the container they are in. Why wouldn't that happen to the fungi? Just because they safely convert some radiation into chemical energy doesn't mean it all gets converted.


I'm with DU on this one. Its like saying "fish don't drown in water, thus they don't get wet."
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:05 AM on July 25, 2008


Suck it, Fungi from Yoggoth!
posted by Busithoth at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2008


[and thanks B for the interesting read]
posted by Busithoth at 8:08 AM on July 25, 2008


Unfortunately, a sample of the new organism was stolen by what can only be described as a "giant mechanical dragon" before researchers could finish their study. An artist's rendering of the event (with researcher to scale).
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:10 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


And astronauts on long spaceflights might one day find a useful, self-replenishing diet in black, melanin-rich fungi.

Space Log, Stardate 272736: Black shit for dinner again. It's been 466 days since the butter ran out. I keep finding myself staring at the airlock, wondering what the stars taste like.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:19 AM on July 25, 2008 [22 favorites]


Just another example of how humans don't "ruin" or "destroy" the environment, we merely change it. Life on Earth is surprisingly adaptable, and it's kind of obnoxious how people characterize human actions as "irreparable damage". From the point of view of this fungus (if fungi had points of view), humans have changed the environment for the positive!

Granted, conserving the environment in which we've adapted to thrive is good for our long-term viability, but it's pretty much impossible to "harm" the environment. Lifeforms always rush in to fill a niche, and it seems pretty species-ist to bemoan, for instance, the awesome power of the kudzu plant.
posted by explosion at 8:21 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder...if enough of the atoms in the fungus were replaced with the appropriate radioactive isotopes, could it essentially sustain itself? It would be like a biological RTG.
posted by jedicus at 8:21 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


This stuff better be a) green b) glowing and c) turn you into the Hulk
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:27 AM on July 25, 2008


As far as I can tell from the article, this isn't a new lifeform. It's a known lifeform doing something they didn't know it could do. Still cool, thoughl.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:30 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dr. Ian Malcolm: "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously."
posted by paulsc at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2008


Casadevall himself agrees. " ...science is always cautious" he noted while holding a mushroom found inside of the radioactive bowels of a melted down nuclear power power plant.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I have been reading about this for a few months, and ruminating over the implications.

The first thing that came to mind is Melanoma in humans, being a deadly skin cancer that will spread to internal organs. I thought immediately that Melanoma feeds on sunlight, and might be partially fungal in origin. The cancer if it is fungal in origin, might feed so well on the human body, because of the energies released in the body, like the electricity of the nervous system.

The second thing, is that I doubt that this is a new property of this or other fungi, only a property we discovered because of the harsh environment where the fungus is thriving. There is massive interest in extremophiles currently. Certainly the fungus in the Chernobyl reactor has to be an extremophile to the highest power. Combining the properties of this fungus, with other fungi that live at high temperature, could have an interesting future in the creation of electricity from passive nuclear, or a future in our utter demise, if suddenly this very hardy, radiation loving life form, decides to devour us in its Icarian climb toward the sun.
posted by Oyéah at 8:46 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Previously
posted by ghost of a past number at 8:50 AM on July 25, 2008


and here I was convinced that WALL-E was fiction. Now, though, I know we really can keep tearing the hell out of this planet...
posted by jasbet07 at 8:54 AM on July 25, 2008


Fungus forests feasting on radioactive remnants of a terrible tragedy? Perhaps we really do have a Nausicaä future ahead of us!
posted by Wavelet at 8:59 AM on July 25, 2008


DU, it depends.

In fission and fusion reactions, most of the energy gets carried off by neutrons. If you want to use this energy to spin a steam turbine and make electricity, you have to stop the neutrons in something. Water is nice because (a) it's pretty easy to get, (b) it turns into steam without an extra step, and (c) most of the capture is n + H → D + 2.2 MeV, and deuterium isn't radioactive. The problem is that the water has to be in a bucket, and the neutrons will also capture on the bucket. Aluminum, copper, steel (at least, steel made with manganese or chromium) --- all of these capture neutrons and make nuclei with longish lifetimes. Plus the irradiation changes the structure of the metal, and so you eventually have to replace the bucket or it will break and leak and who wants that, anyway?

Neutron activation is a different kettle of fish from radioactive contamination, where you get some radioactive dust on you and you can wash it off into the groundwater. The big problem with contamination is that uranium fission makes long-lived radioactive isotopes of cesium, iodine, and strontium. The cesium you could wash off. Iodine and strontium, if they get absorbed by the body, get carried to the thyroid and bones, respectively; when they decay there, you absorb the entire energy of the decay.

Contamination is different from exposure, which is where fast subatomic particles (alphas, betas, gammas, neutrons, muons from space, etc.) lose energy in a material by knocking electrons around. This is only dangerous to the extent that biology is chemistry: if you have some metabolic process happening in a cell and you change the charge state of a participant, you'll get a different outcome. This might be benign. Or it might change a coding section of your DNA from "good protein" to "god protein" and that cell begins to multiply uncontrollably, which is called a tumor.

Hopefully you can imagine that each one of these steps is complicated.

Inside the reactor itself, most of the radiation today is probably gammas: alphas and betas don't go very far in air, and the neutron leakage from dispersed nuclear fuel is pretty small. And heat. But the unique thing about the inside of Chernobyl is gammas. And things irradiated only with gammas don't (except for a few super-special heavy elements, maybe) remain radioactive afterwards. The knocked-off electrons settle back down somewhere and that is the end.

So if there is "radiosynthesis," it's different from ordinary photosynthesis in that it takes place in a medium with more ionization, and the wavelength dependence that makes chlorophyll green isn't so important.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:01 AM on July 25, 2008 [7 favorites]


4) And because the fungi don't actually 'eat' radioactive material, but simply use the energy it radiates, Dadachova said, they're in no danger of becoming radioactive themselves.

I'm pretty sure that's wrong. For instance, fusion reactors can become radioactive over time because the particles zooming around hit, and isotopify (or whatever the term is), the container they are in. Why wouldn't that happen to the fungi? Just because they safely convert some radiation into chemical energy doesn't mean it all gets converted.


What they seem to be saying is that the fungus won't absorb already-existing radioactive material lying around inside the reactor, which could quickly make it highly radioactive. Several species of mushroom are known to selectively concentrate Cs-137, one of the main components of Chernobyl fallout; animals and people eating these mushrooms could be exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. If I recall correctly, some specific human populations that relied on hunting were particularly affected after the Chernobyl accident, as they hunted deer that liked to eat the contaminated mushrooms.

Radioactivity induced by irradiation ( properly called activation) is mostly caused by neutrons, significant fluxes of which are not easy to produce outside of a functioning nuclear reactor. In practice, radioactive contamination is usually caused by physical transfer of radioactive material, not by irradiation.

On preview, what fantabulous said.
posted by ghost of a past number at 9:07 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Explosion, I think you're part right. When people use the phrase "the environment" you could say they are being a bit careless with their words. As you point out the environment is, in the broadest sense, indestructible.
However I think what people really intend is: "our environment". (The ecosystem that has the capacity to sustain our form of life as we know it) In this case their concerns are legitimate, in my opinion. The complex biodiversity we share the planet with it has adapted to a very narrowl ecological range. Small changes in temperature, for example, produce drastic effects on many species. As we learnt from Chenoyble vast changes in radiation levels cause appalling havoc.

The idea that is obnoxious to bemoan environmental damage is nuts. A vast proportion of the world's human population is not privileged with our ecological security, ie they die when their harvest fails. This is already happening. It is hardly spiciest to show a concern for their fait just because a load of cockroaches and fungi might end up doing ok. One has to keep a sense of proportion with these things.
posted by verisimilitude at 9:09 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fungi that live off radiation? Now thats what I call intelligent designing!
posted by TedW at 9:27 AM on July 25, 2008


I like how the illustration of happy little mushrooms makes it seem as though there's fun little toadstools all over Chernobyl, when what they are really talking about is mold. Allergenic mold that happens to be found all over the world, actually. This particular Cladosporium species likes to grow on rotting building materials.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:30 AM on July 25, 2008


This particular Cladosporium species likes to grow on rotting building materials.

Which can't help but evoke images of mold covered continents post nuclear exchange. Yikes.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2008


So can we alter it to eat radiation and poop oil? Because honestly, that would solve pretty much everything.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2008


So can we alter it to eat radiation and poop oil? Because honestly, that would solve pretty much everything.

No, it would need to eat carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and 'acid rain' and poop ozone as well.
posted by spicynuts at 10:04 AM on July 25, 2008


Poisons concentrate in food chains. That is all.
posted by Lleyam at 10:28 AM on July 25, 2008


Oyéah: "I have been reading about this for a few months, and ruminating over the implications.

The first thing that came to mind is Melanoma in humans, being a deadly skin cancer that will spread to internal organs. I thought immediately that Melanoma feeds on sunlight, and might be partially fungal in origin. The cancer if it is fungal in origin, might feed so well on the human body, because of the energies released in the body, like the electricity of the nervous system.
"


You are really really wrong. Really wrong. Melanoma is caused when ultraviolet radiation causes mutations in cellular DNA. These mutations are often fixed in cells and are never an issue, other mutations are not fixed, but occur in unimportant regions or are silent mutations. Sometimes these mutations occur in classes of genes that control how the cell grows, divides, or dies.

If the mutation occurs in just the right (wrong) place the cell may begin dividing uncontrollably, as will the daughter cells it passes that mutation to. That's what tumors are. Melanoma doesn't feed on sunlight, sunlight just causes the initial mutation that sets off the whole horrible cascade. Cancerous cells, like every other cell in your body feeds on the nutrients that you eat and drink, cancer cells are actually pretty darn good at rerouting your body's blood supply to keep themselves supplied with what they need. So yeah, cancer feeds on our energy, but that's energy in the form of ATP and other chemicals, not the impulses of our nervous system.

Now that's not to say that some of our oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, or other classes of genes aren't closely related to fungal genes. But that isn't saying a lot because different species of fungi will have related genes that differ from each other. Even small mutations in a gene can cause dramatic functional changes in a protein. We may have a gene pretty similar to a fungal gene, but due to any number of mutations the proteins coded for in each species function in dramatically different ways. There's a whole area of study devoted to figuring out how genes have changed between species.
posted by Science! at 10:34 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


No, it would need to eat carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and 'acid rain' and poop ozone as well.

Well, we've already got some pretty great organisms that eat carbon dioxide. You know, plants? :)

My understanding of metabolic processes is very rusty, but I'm thinking of this process using photosynthesis as a metaphor. Plants convert sunlight energy into a form they can store, either as ATP or plain electrons (maybe both? I forget, it's been a while since I studied this stuff). They then need a source of carbon, typically carbon dioxide, and they use the energy they stored from sunlight to convert the carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. So it's a two step process, where they need an energy source AND a carbon source. Animals get both energy and carbon from organic material (food), so it's easy to forget that plants need separate sources.

So it sounds like these fungi are using radioactive energy in a way analogous to the first step of photosynthesis, which is to say it's a source of energy, but they still need a source of carbon to grow. Perhaps they are using CO2, which would be a lovely bonus for us.

I really know nothing about fungi, I'm just extrapolating from poorly-remembered info in general biology. If somebody wants to come along and correct me, I'd love it.
posted by vytae at 10:40 AM on July 25, 2008


and poop ozone as well

No, that would be bad, since Ozone at ground level is bad (or at best not helpful). If it could poop it into the upper atmosphere, then that would be good.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:46 AM on July 25, 2008


While this is cool from a "Holy crap, that's strange..." perspective, the real joy in this story is that it is a perfect mechanism for super-hero/ mutated monster creation.

Simply force subject to eat the mushrooms that are capable of surviving the shattered core of Chernobyl's reactor and *poof* you've either got superpowers or are turned into a giant city destroying creature.

Either way, it sounds like a party I want to be invited to. Where can I order some?
posted by quin at 10:55 AM on July 25, 2008


It also raises the possibility that fungi might be using melanin to secretly harvest visible and ultraviolet light for growth, adds Casadeval

Then surely it must also raise the possibility animals are doing this too, maybe even human animals.

It would actually be a nice design feature for melanocytes to be able to feed off uv exposure (since they serve to protect other cells from uv), even if they were unable to export the harvest for a more common good.
posted by jamjam at 11:04 AM on July 25, 2008


explosion: Funny comment. I can think of a couple other reasons to protect the current ecology besides being pro-human. You could be pro-biological diversity -- for example, you could inherently value a rainforest more than a cornfield. Or you could be pro-biomass -- and thus oppose efforts to nuke the atmosphere and blot out the sun, which will result in less energy and thus less life overall (but with the positive that it would finally kill those robots).

This amounts to a sort of sort of existentialist multiple choice problem -- we shouldn't destroy the environment, because A) humans are important, B) biodiversity is important C) biomass is important D) who cares, matter is matter, I'm staying in bed.

Sign up for my newsletter now, and you'll be the first to hear about the complete JHC Existentialist Personality Instrument, when available!
posted by jhc at 11:17 AM on July 25, 2008


First there was vodka, now there are atomic shrooms. What a country.
posted by Cranberry at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2008


Which can't help but evoke images of mold covered continents post nuclear exchange. Yikes.

I've seen this movie.
posted by SPrintF at 12:37 PM on July 25, 2008


Plants convert sunlight energy into a form they can store, either as ATP or plain electrons (maybe both? I forget, it's been a while since I studied this stuff).

You're basically kind of right and kind of wrong.
The sunlight is used to move electrons around, pulling them off of water molecules, and setting up a concentration gradient, with which they make NADPH and ATP. So, it is moving about electrons, but only as a temporary intermediary in the process of storing the energy in the chemical bonds of NADP and ATP.
here is the relevant wiki article.
what does that have to do with what we're actually talking about? very little. Just felt like being an insufferable pedant.

on topic: The fungi are really really cool, in the 'could devour my house slowly' sort of way.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:20 PM on July 25, 2008


Reminds me of the weirdest passages in the Omnivore's Dilemma, about humans one day consuming "moon calories" captured by mushrooms and other fungi. From Amazon's Book Search:

on Page 377:
"... Weil speculates that their energies derive from the moon rather than the sun, that mushrooms contain, instead of calories of solar origin, prodigious amounts of lunar energy. ..."

posted by exhilaration at 1:26 PM on July 25, 2008


Well, we've already got some pretty great organisms that eat carbon dioxide. You know, plants? :)

Yeah..how's that goin so far?
posted by spicynuts at 1:31 PM on July 25, 2008


The first few sentences claim that "wildlife is flourishing". It isn't. It's true that there are more plants and animals around now that people are not there, but those plants and animals suffer the effects of radiation too:

The idea that the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has created a wildlife haven is not scientifically justified, a study says.

Recent studies said rare species had thrived despite raised radiation levels as a result of no human activity.

But scientists who assessed the 1986 disaster's impact on birds said the ecological effects were "considerably greater than previously assumed".

The findings appear in the Royal Society's journal, Biology Letters.

In April 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded.

After the accident, traces of radioactive deposits were found in nearly every country in the northern hemisphere.

The paper's authors, Anders Moller of University Pierre and Marie Curie, France, and Tim Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, US, said their research did not support the idea that low-level radiation was not affecting animals.

"Recent conclusions from the UN Chernobyl Forum and reports in the popular media concerning the effects of radiation from Chernobyl has left the impression that the exclusion zone is a thriving ecosystem, filled with an increasing number of rare species," they wrote.

Instead, they added: "Species richness, abundance and population density of breeding birds decreased with increasing levels of radiation."

The study, which recorded 1,570 birds from 57 species, found that the number of birds in the most contaminated areas declined by 66% compared with sites that had normal background radiation levels.

It also reported a decline of more than 50% in the range of species as radiation levels increase.

The findings build on a previous study of barn swallows in the affected area, which showed that the number of the birds declined sharply in contaminated areas.

The birds' decline was probably the result of depressed levels of antioxidants after its long migration back to the area, making it more vulnerable to the low-level radiation, the researchers concluded.

"It suggests to us that barn swallows are not alone; there are many other species that appear to be affected in a similar way," Professor Mousseau told BBC News.


(From here).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:27 PM on July 25, 2008


Then surely it must also raise the possibility animals are doing this too, maybe even human animals.

I'm not sure that's true. There's no evidence that people do this with radiation. Also, I don't think it's gotten any more or less possible because of this discovery: if you asked a scientist a few years ago if it were possible that a certain gene or group of genes would allow a species to process atomic radiation for energy, s/he'd probably be pretty optimistic about the prospects.
posted by invitapriore at 5:07 PM on July 25, 2008


...and you always thought the term "mushroom cloud" just referred to the shape.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:44 PM on July 25, 2008


mushrooms can save the world
posted by lysdexic at 11:13 PM on July 25, 2008


We have discussed the thriving wildlife hypothesis (which seems to be false) before.
posted by ghost of a past number at 11:17 PM on July 25, 2008


So, it is moving about electrons, but only as a temporary intermediary in the process of storing the energy in the chemical bonds of NADP and ATP.

what does that have to do with what we're actually talking about? very little. Just felt like being an insufferable pedant.


Umm... I think that is exactly what we're talking about. From the article:

They also saw a change in the pigment's electronic structure. This, Dadachova says, is evidence "that melanin transformed part of the ionising radiation energy into the energy of electrons, which represents the 'chemical' form of energy [that] fungi could potentially use in their metabolism."

The article explicitly compares the fungi's use of radiation to plants' photosynthetic use of sunlight:

If plants can use the green pigment, chlorophyll, to absorb energy from the Sun and produce a usable form of chemical energy, they reasoned, fungi might be able to use their melanin pigment and radiation energy in a similar way. They even devised the snazzy moniker, 'radiosynthesis', for the process.
posted by vytae at 8:57 AM on July 28, 2008


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