Some fungi eat radiation to fuel their growth, a new study has found. Three species of fungi containing the black pigment melanin—a substance also present in human skin—grew larger and faster when exposed to high levels of radiation, even when deprived of nutrients.
A similar response was not seen in fungi lacking the pigment, as well as in fungi that did not receive the radiation exposure.
Lead researcher Ekaterina Dadachova said these observations suggest that the pigment may play a role similar to that of chlorophyll in plants, which traps energy from sunlight and converts it to "food energy" needed to sustain life.
"We have associated the faster growth caused by radiation with melanin—a phenomenon suggesting that the pigment is somehow involved in harvesting high-energy ionizing radiation and promoting growth, she said.
Space travelers could someday harvest foods raised on radiation, since several edible mushrooms contain melanin.