The Blob Speaks Russian

The robot moves forward in the concrete catastrophe zone, gamma radiation high enough to mean death to any human exposed; not an instant death but a slow agonizing demise as one organ after another fails; kidneys, liver, heart, lungs with the skin finally becoming an unrecognizable rotting black mask. The mechanical explorer takes a sample of a slime the same rotting, black color, growing on the wall of the chamber; thriving in this lightless, lonely spot.

Does that sound like I’m trying my hand at science fiction? Not exactly.

A new paper published last week describes just such a scenario. But the black slime isn’t something from a 1950’s science fiction movie, it’s a fungus apparently living from gamma radiation itself in a very unreal environment: inside the concrete coffin surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

From the Eureakalert article,

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 energetics—in particular, the amount of radiation energy being converted to biological energy—may 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.

This isn’t the first time life forms have been found ‘feeding’ on radiation. (Who knew?) Last year researchers from Indiana University at Bloomington reported finding bacteria living in rocks over 2.8 kilometers below the surface of the earth. According to the press release,

Radiation emanating from uranium minerals in or near the fracture allows for the formation of hydrogen gas from decomposition of water and formation of sulfate from decomposition of sulfur minerals. Hydrogen gas is highly energetic if it reacts with oxygen or other oxidants like sulfate, as the Hindenburg disaster demonstrated. Firmicutes are able to harvest energy from the reaction of hydrogen and sulfate, allowing other microbes in the fracture community to use the chemical waste from the Firmicutes as food.

This new finding also has very important implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. If organisms can survive not only on sulphates and hydrogen but directly from radiation, that would greatly expand possible environments where life could form and be found.

I just hope that life doesn’t land on the earth, sealed in a meteor, near a diner in a small town – at night. As long as the fungus sticks to eating radiation and not B-Movie actors, I think this is a pretty cool find.

And on the bright side, now we know what language the Blob spoke – Russian. Doesn’t Condoleezza Rice speak Russian? All better then.


3 comments so far

  1. Teresa on

    also on the bright side, when Russia does it’s pre-emptive nuclear strike to keep us from deploying our Star Wars technology in Europe…evolution will be much further along than it was the first time it had to start from basic organisms.

  2. blc303 on

    It’s just another sign of Godzilla’s second coming.

  3. Teresa on

    Yes! I look forward to it! When Godzilla returns, he will make a tasty snack for the Old Ones.

    I can see it now…they will have appatizers of delicious spine-plates with radioactive fungi spread.

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