The recent discovery by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that certain species of fungi such as Cryptococcus neoformans possess the remarkable ability to use radioactivity as a source of energy for consumption and growth has led to much speculation over its potential applications. Possible uses range from supplying a steady source of food for astronauts on long space voyages to providing an effective means of nuclear waste disposal.
Dr. Arturo Casadevall, chair of microbiology & immunology at Albert Einstein and the senior author of the study, noted that, "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 energetics—in particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy—may need to be recalculated."
Ekaterina Dadchova, one of the lead authors of the study, has even suggested that the fungi could be grown at high altitudes where little besides radiation is prevalent to be used as a source of biofuel (just imagine a car running on 'shrooms). But how does this all work?The fungi apparently use melanin, a pigment also found in human skin, to convert radiation into energy to use as food and for growth in a process analogous to photosynthesis. As Dadachova explains, melanin assumes the role of chlorophyll in this alternative reaction with ionizing radiation taking the place of visible light. "The mechanism of this process needs to be established. It took at least two decades and the work of several research groups to determine the mechanism of photosynthesis."
So does the melanin in our own skins also provide us with an inexhaustible source of food by converting the sun's radiation into chemical energy? Not so fast, say Dadachova and Casadevall, who contend that even if the reaction were to occur, it would only produce minuscule amounts of energy. "It's pure speculation but not outside the realm of possibility that melanin could be providing energy to skin cells," Casadevall says. "While it wouldn't be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid."
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