Guest Post: Lifeforms Can Clean Up Radiation … Naturally

Washington’s Blog


When BP spilled huge quantities of oil into the Gulf, the company and the government ignored natural ways to help clean up the mess, and instead dumped toxic dispersants into the Gulf which actually made things worse.

Likewise – believe it or not – there may be natural ways to help clean up radiation from Fukushima and elsewhere, and to reduce human and animal exposure to radioactive elements.

Scientific American points out:

Like plants that grow toward the sun, dark fungi, blackened by the skin pigment melanin, gravitate toward radiation in contaminated soil. Scientists have observed the organisms—somewhere between plants and animals—blackening the land around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in the years since its 1986 meltdown. “Organisms that make melanin have a growth advantage in this soil,” says microbiologist Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “In many commercial nuclear reactors, the radioactive water becomes contaminated with melanotic organisms. Nobody really knows what the hell they are doing there.”

***

“Melanin is very good at absorbing energy and then dissipating it as quickly as possible,” says Jennifer Riesz, a biophysicist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “It does this by very efficiently changing the energy into heat.”

But Casadevall and his colleague Ekaterina Dadachova, a nuclear chemist at Einstein, speculate that the melanin in this case acts like a step-down electric transformer, weakening the energy until it is useable by the fungi. “The energy becomes … low [at] a certain point where it can already be used by a fungus as chemical energy,” Dadachova argues. “Protection doesn’t play a role here. It is real energy conversion.”

Cosmos Magazine notes:

Sitting at the centre of the [Chernobyl] exclusion zone, the damaged reactor unit is encased in a steel and cement sarcophagus. It’s a deathly tomb that plays host to about 200 tonnes of melted radioactive fuel, and is swarming with radioactive dust.

***

But it’s also the abode of some very hardy fungi which researchers believe aren’t just tolerating the severe radiation, but actually harnessing its energy to thrive.

“Our findings suggest that [the fungi] can capture the energy from radiation and transform it into other forms of energy that can be used for growth,” said microbiologist Arturo Casadevall from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, USA.

***

In 1999, a robot sent to map the inside of the reactor returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin, which also colours your skin.

Though melanin is typically associated with ‘protective’ properties – absorbing and safely transforming different electromagnetic wavelengths, such as DNA-damaging ultraviolet light – the researchers had an inkling that a more extraordinary phenomenon was allowing the fungi to prosper; something still involving the combination of melanin and radiation, but beyond the bounds of radioactive protection.

After all, even without melanin, many fungi are intrinsically radiation-resistant.

***

The group analysed three different types of fungi, including Cladosporium sphaerospermum, the species abundant in and around Chernobyl. Using ionising radiation from the radioactive isotope, caesium-137, they exposed the fungi to radiation doses similar to those inside the damaged reactor, and about 500 times greater than the Earth’s normal background level.

Melanin-containing fungi exposed to the radiation – even when nutrient-starved on purpose – grew significantly larger and up to 2.5 times faster than fungi without melanin and those not exposed to radiation.

According to Yeshiva’s Ekaterina Dadachova, the nuclear chemist who led the study, “the presence of melanin in the cells gives them a distinct advantage over non-melanised cells, in terms of better growth [with radiation].”

***

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.

Indeed, some bacteria appear to have this property as well. As the Washington Post notes:

At least one of the bacteria species discovered [miles underground] lives entirely disconnected from anything on the Earth’s surface or produced by photosynthesis. It uses the radioactive decay of nearby rocks as the energy source to break apart molecules that it then feeds on.

One of the world’s leading authorities on fungi and bioremediation – mycologist Paul Stamets – writes:

Surprisingly, we learned from the Chernobyl disaster some species of melanin-producing fungi thrive, feeding on concrete, within the highly radioactive environment of the damaged containment vessel. At Chernobyl, some fungi’s growth was stimulated by severe radiation, even when exposed to >1,000,000 rads !

Stamets notes that melanin-producing fungi can take radiation out of the environment:

Many people have written me and asked more or less the same question: “What would you do to help heal the Japanese landscape around the failing nuclear reactors?”

***

Plant native deciduous and conifer trees, along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal
mushrooms, particularly Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and
Laccaria amethystina … G. glutinosus has been reported to absorb – via the mycelium – and concentrate radioactive Cesium 137 more than 10,000-fold over ambient background levels. Many other mycorrhizal mushroom species also hyper-accumulate.

***

Continuously remove the mushrooms, which have now concentrated the
radioactivity, particularly Cesium 137, to an incinerator. Burning the mushroom will result in radioactive ash. This ash can be further refined and the resulting
concentrates vitrified (placed into glass) or stored using other state-of-the-art
storage technologies.

While Stamets focuses on the area surrounding Fukushima, there is no reason that we can’t plant melanin species like Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and
Laccaria amethystina which are common in areas with pine trees – for example, in many parts of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii – to tie up radiation in our soil. Handle them like hazardous waste when you pick and dispose of them (contact your local hazardous waste agency for details).

Indeed, Scientific American notes that regular mushrooms or even plants could be converted into melanin-containing, radiation-loving lifeforms:

Fungi induced to produce a melanin shell (the human pathogen Cryptococcocus neoformans) grew well in such levels of radiation, unlike those sans pigment.

***

Melanin could be genetically engineered into photosynthetic plants to boost their productivity or melanin-bearing fungi could be used in clothing to shield workers from radiation …

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander… http://www.washingtonsblog.com

25 comments

  1. Tertium Squid

    So are black people more resistant to radiation?

    Do these melanin-containing things dissipate energy and avoid a meltdown, do they remove radioactive gases from the air, or do they somehow absorb the neutrons pinging around looking for DNA strands to splice? They are said to “tie up” radiation in the soil, but that suggests they are like little ion sponges. Do they absorb radiation better than, say, dirt? or are they just able to put the radiation to use?

    I generally lose interest when scientists start to talk like this:

    “That is the observation. How you interpret it … is where the interesting speculations come in.”

    Just sounds like fantasy chaining.

    It’s cool that these extremophiles can live in nuclear reactors, but in that case don’t you just end up with radioactive fungus? Maybe the fungus is fine, but we won’t be. The radiation doesn’t just go away…

    1. rjs

      it just seems the article title was an unfortunate choice of words; otherwise, it’s an interesting observation…

        1. Up the Ante

          “What the headline giveth, the content taketh away.”

          Nah, not really. The point made was to continually harvest them. I don’t agree burning them is best, but the central point of harvesting is well taken.

  2. Chet Murthy

    Just a nit, and I’m certainly not a physicist, but the cited articles make two separate points:

    (i) melanin-rich bacteria and fungi apparently thrive in radiation-rich environments, though they -do- -not- actually ingest the radio-isotopes (and this is crucial).

    (ii) certain mushrooms -do- ingest (and concentrate those radio-isotopes)

    From reading the three linked articles, the Starnets article is the only one actually talking about remediation. The others, well, they discuss how fungi and bacteria might grow faster, but there’s no discussion of how this could help clean up anything. Starnets’ article talks about how mushrooms can concentrate radio-isotopes; those mushrooms would then need to be gathered, burned, and their ash sequestered like any other nuclear by-product, but at least it would be dramatically reduced in volume.

    Just a nit.

    1. watercarrier4diogenes

      I think the point re: fungi is that they absorb the energy (radiation) that would otherwise be loose in the environment (i.e. coursing through your and my DNA, etc). How much they absorb inside the Chernobyl sarcophagus vs. how much of the concrete enclosure walls they break down would be of interest before any “let’s fung the nuke” plan could be drawn up.

      Regarding the mushrooms: finding and absorbing CS-137 (whose half-life is longer than yours or mine), thus making it easier (nominally, it appears) to collect it and deal with it, would be of value. How much of the CS-137 per square mile that could be remediated this way remains a question that needs answering, though perhaps per square mile/per year might be a better focus.

      Certain mushrooms’ ability to do this has been known for quite a long time, perhaps from observations after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was even the subject of a Hayao Miyazaki graphic novel, which dates back to the 1960’s, and animated film, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”, redubbed and released by Disney in the U.S. in 2005.

    2. Up the Ante

      “.. but at least it would be dramatically reduced in volume.”

      Dessicate the mushrooms, and get them under earth, assuming cesium or strontium isotopes, in a designated no-man’s land burial site.

  3. Anon

    Yes, lifeforms can clean up radiation, only the lifeform of choice right now for the Japanese in charge of this debacle appears to be little children:

    Well they did it again, this time the Board of Education in Joso City in Ibaraki Prefecture. Back in May, as one of the annual, educational events of the schools, public elementary schools and junior high schools in Joso City had their pupils clean out the school swimming pools in preparation for the school swimming classes during summer. The teachers also helped out. Together, they cleaned the pools and scooped out the dirt that had accumulated at the bottom of the pools.

    [Five] schools kept the dirt in a corner of the schoolyards. At one elementary school, a concerned PTA member decided to measure the radiation of the dirt. The result? 17,020 becquerels/kg of radioactive cesium.

    There are 14 public elementary schools, [five] junior high schools in Joso City. The city’s Board of Education runs both elementary schools and junior high schools.

    [snip]

    A member of the school’s PTA collected a bucketful of this dirt on June 11, and sent 3 kilograms of it to a laboratory specializing in radiation measurement. The result, which was delivered on June 29, showed the sample contained 7,700 becquerels/kg of cesium-134 and 9,320 becquerels/kg of cesium-137.

    http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/07/17020-becquerelskg-cesium-in-dirt.html

    1. Up the Ante

      “Yes, lifeforms can clean up radiation, only the lifeform of choice right now for the Japanese in charge of this debacle appears to be little children: ..”

      Stark, but you’ll note that’s exactly what they’re doing.

  4. Microbiologist

    A bit misleading article. Unlike bacteria used in oil bioremediation, which consume and break down hazardous oil waste, these fungi do not and cannot do anything to transform radioactive isotopes into non-radioactive ones.

    Part of radioactive material would of course end up in fungal tissue and could be collected as mushrooms. That would still of course leave the problem of what to do with those mushrooms. Unfortunately this isn’t very effective, as the overwhelmingly vast majority of fungal biomass is in the soil colonizing hyphae. Many symbiotic fungi (ectomycorrhizal fungi) do concentrate radioactive isotopes into their hyphae. Trouble is that this hyphae itself is not in any way concentrated in soil. It’s basically a vast forest wide web that exist everywhere in soil. Picking and sorting it out from the bulk soil wouldn’t probably be much easier or less-expensive than just cleaning the whole soil with other means.

    Also, note that mycorrhizal fungi are ubiquitous in nature. >90% plants form these symbiotic associations. The natural fungal population in soils already does this work. That’s why Europeans were advised to not eat mushrooms immediately following the Chernobyl accident.

      1. pegnu

        but you wrote this nonsensical article not Stamets. Perhaps when you understand basic physics and chemistry you’ll understand why people are complaining about the quality of this blog post.

    1. steelhead23

      There is some chance that mycorrhizal uptake of cesium would accelerate its movement into the biome. These fungi have symbiotic relationships with vascular plants, greatly enhancing water and nutrient uptake by plant roots. I know that the issue here is irradiation, not bio-magnification, I am simply suggesting that rather than being a good thing, this could be a bad thing. More research is needed before suggesting using fungi to remediate radioactive isotope releases. I am suddenly reminded of an old Jefferson Airplane song.

  5. charles 2

    rape, sunflower and hemp also have demonstrated their capacity to absorb radionuclides like Caesium. It can even be used as a biomass fuel.

  6. pegnu

    as Chet Murthy has already pointed out this article is scientifically incoherent and makes little sense. Doesn’t really enhance the author’s credibility.

  7. Sock Puppet

    This article betrays a complete ignorance of nuclear physics and chemistry. No amount of chemical or biological transformation will stop a radioactive isotope from emitting radiation.
    This author is damaging the causes he purports to support and the credibility of sites that link to him.

  8. John Emerson

    I agree that it’s a bad article. Radioactive isotopes decay at the same rate regardless of where they are. The most a life form could do would be to concentrate them for easier disposal.

  9. Attitude_Check

    Why let science and logic get in the way of a “good” story? There are agenda’s to pursue you know…..

    1. George Washington Post author

      The “agenda” is to try to reduce the severity of damage to humans, animals and the environment.

      The agenda of the nuclear power industry is not to pay any money to remediate, just as BP with the oil spill.

      So who has the agenda?

  10. Wayne Martin

    Interesting .. but there are no time frames provided as to when this sort of bio-remediation would render the affected areas “safe” again.

  11. razzz

    Well, it is the first time I have read that a living thing when exposed to high radiation levels doesn’t die or become irradiated itself.

    What is it? Twenty-five years later after Chernobyl that they are redoing the sarcophagus with a new improved more expensive model. Chernobyl New Safe Confinement / Sarcophagus and here

    Only about a hundred more years to go before they can approach the melted core/corium/elephant’s foot for removal (when they determine where it is).

  12. Susan

    Interesting research. But still must incinerate the mushrooms and then vitrify the ash. And then store it, yatta, yatta, yatta. And the oceans? Anyway the thought that kept popping to mind was – gee melanin sounds like a form of human photosynthesis. The holy grail of energy research? But I must be giddy. Could melanin be used in solar/solar particle collectors and blah blah blah? Or alternatively could we use melanin to recycle radioactive waste for more energy?

    1. Cedric Regula

      Personally, I’ve been hoping that if I lay out by the pool long enough, I’ll sprout wings and be able to fly.

      But until that happens, there is some work going on to try and harness photosynthesis by bio-engineering little micro-critters than take in sunlight and CO2 and excrete bio-diesel.

      Don’t get too excited yet, there is plenty that could go wrong and we find out this is another dead end. Or we find the little guys mutate into something found in a Michael Crichton novel…

      http://www.jouleunlimited.com/

  13. Glenn

    This is a very reassuring article.

    I am so comforted by the thought of black fungus continuing to flourish long after we have made the earth uninhabitable for humans.

    1. Up the Ante

      “I am so comforted by the thought of black fungus continuing to flourish long after we have made the earth uninhabitable for humans.”

      .. and even more comforted by the thought of the enormous tracts of the earth’s surface rendered uninhabitable by the cockroaches of the nuclear industry?

      re: Goal of the Nuke industry to chip away at their biz’s competitors, remediation services

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