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Fungi shields for astronauts.. Laboratory success collides with the difficulty of application

The lack of effective radiation protection is one of the biggest challenges that still have to be overcome if humans are to embark on long-distance journeys into deep space.

On Earth, the planet’s powerful magnetosphere protects us from the most deadly forms of radiation, those produced by solar flares and distant galactic cosmic rays that stream through the solar system.

Astronauts on the International Space Station, 408 kilometers (254 miles) above Earth, receive high levels of radiation but are close enough to Earth that they still receive some protection and can stay in orbit for up to a year.

The same cannot be said for astronauts who travel far, to the Moon for example, or someday to Mars, and future deep space travelers will need to bring their own shields with them.

And according to the paper, which was published by University of North Carolina researchers in the pre-publication site PureXev earlier this month, a special type of fungus that thrives in highly radioactive environments called Cladosporium sferrospermum, could form a living shield around astronauts. .

Not only do mushrooms block radiation, they actually use it for growth, through a process called radiosynthesis, where they draw energy from radiation, just as most plants draw energy from sunlight through photosynthesis.

These radio-loving fungi live on Earth in extreme places, such as the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

In space, they do, too. In 2019, researchers took some fungi to the International Space Station, monitored how they grew over the course of 30 days, and measured the amount of radiation they passed through, compared to a fungus-free control sample.

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The experiment showed that radiation levels under a layer of fungi with a thickness of 1.7 mm (0.07 inch) were 2.17% lower than that of the control group.

Not only that, but the fungus grew 21% faster than it does on Earth, which means that the fungus’ ability to act as a protective shield for astronauts could grow stronger as the mission continues.

Despite these successful laboratory experiments on the International Space Station, it’s too early to get too excited about the practical applications of these fungi in space travel.

The study team estimates that on Mars, in order to reduce radiation levels to Earth-like conditions, a dwelling must be covered with a 2.3-meter (7.5-foot) thick layer of artificial fungi.

The same effect can be achieved by burying the dwelling under 3 meters of Martian soil, however, the potential for biological solutions to what are often considered engineering challenges is a unique and potentially fruitful approach.

In the near future, astronauts will rely on more regular solutions, and in the case of a solar flare event, contingency plans include sheltering in the spaceship’s payload, as the greater the mass between astronauts and incoming radiation, the safer they will be.

The upcoming unmanned Artemis 1 mission, due to launch next year, is testing a protective jacket designed to reduce radiation doses to its wearer.

So far, none of these solutions is ideal. There is still a lot of work to do to keep future astronauts safe. However, when the time comes, don’t be surprised if part of the solution to space radiation includes hiding under thick cover. Friendly fungi.

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