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Organisms capture radiation: black fungus

Melanin pigments in black fungi harness energy for metabolism by scattering/trapping photons and electrons from ionizing radiation.

"Melanins are unique biopolymers that protect living organisms against UV and ionizing radiation and extreme temperatures…For example, the melanotic fungus C. [Cladosporium] cladosporioides manifests radiotropism by growing in the direction of radioactive particles and this organism has become widely distributed in the areas surrounding Chernobyl since the nuclear accident in 1986 [7]. Both in the laboratory and in the field several other species of melanized fungi grew towards soil particles contaminated with different radionuclides, gradually engulfing and destroying those particles [35,36]…On the basis of these precedents and the results of this study we cautiously suggest that the ability of melanin to capture electromagnetic radiation combined with its remarkable oxidation-reduction properties may confer upon melanotic organisms the ability to harness radiation for metabolic energy." (Dadachova et al. 2007:10-11)

"Fungi are well-known for breaking down organic material, not creating it from scratch, as plants do. But a fungus that might break that mold has been discovered thriving at one of the most toxic sites in the world: the defunct Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

The black fungus Cladosporium sphaerospermum was collected from the reactor walls by a robot touring the radioactive site, and it caught the attention of Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Intrigued by the phenomenon, Casadevall, Ekaterina Dadachova, also of Einstein, and their colleagues exposed colonies of C. sphaerospermum and two other species of fungus to extravagantly high levels of radiation in the laboratory. Radiation, they discovered, increases the growth of species that have melanin, the dark pigment that also occurs in human skin. Furthermore, when the investigators irradiated melanin in isolation, they noted dramatic changes in its electronic properties. Melanin seems to capture energy from radiation and convert it to chemical energy, much the way chlorophyll in plants captures the energy of sunlight.

If C. sphaerospermum and the numerous other fungi that make melanin are indeed able to 'radiosynthesize,' fundamental equations describing the Earth's energy balance might need to be recalculated. (PLoS ONE)" (Flores 2007)
About the inspiring organism
Cladosporium sphaerospermum
Cladosporium sphaerospermum Penz. 1882

Learn more at
Some organism data provided by: Species Fungorum
Organism/taxonomy data provided by:
Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist

IUCN Red List Status: Unknown

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: Radioprotection from nuclear fallout. New kinds of energy production based on capturing photons and electrons from radiation. Radiation cleanup efforts. Treatment of radioactive wastes. Manufacturing new products to produce energy from radioactive waste.

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Energy, Medicine, Radiotherapy, Manufacturing, Waste Treatment, Nuclear Energy

The Dadachova Laboratory
Ekatarina Dadachova
Department of Nuclear Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Dadachova, E.; Bryan, R.A.; Huang, X.; Moadel, T.; Schweitzer, A.D.; Aisen, P.; Nosanchuk, J.D.; Casadevall, A. 2007. Ionizing radiation changes the electronic properties of melanin and enhances the growth of melanized fungi. PLoS ONE. 2007(5): e457.
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O'Connell, David. 2007. Fungal physiology: radiation junkies. Nature Reviews Microbiology. 5(7): 475.
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Flores, Graciela. 2007. Radiation: It’s What’s for Dinner. Natural History. 116(7): 14.
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