In a potentially revolutionary study, researchers at Yeshiva University have announced that three species of fungi taken from the Chernobyl Power Plant in the Ukraine can feed off of radiation in their environment. (via National Geographic News)
These three species all use melanin to capture the radiation. That's right, melanin -- the very same pigment that protects you from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. Researchers still don't know what benefit the fungi derive from radiation, but the energy is being put to use somehow -- even when deprived of other nutrients, the fungi managed to grow better when exposed to higher levels of radiation. This indicates they are using the ionizing radiation to drive the synthesis of common compounds into food molecules ("radiosynthesis"). (Some Archaea, a branch of ancient "bacteria", have been observed doing this 4 miles deep in the Earth's crust, but they are currently pretty irrelevant to our biosphere.)
Photosynthesis and radiosynthesis (ionosynthesis?) are essentially identical in nature, but this is the first time a multicellular organism has been observed to make use of the far more dangerous ionizing radiation such as that produced by nuclear waste. (Sunlight and gamma rays are both electromagnetic energy, but sunlight is far gentler.) Fungi have raised suspicions of harvesting radiation before, but no one has found hard evidence.
What will this mean for humans? Dadachova, the study's lead author, suggests that genetically engineered mushrooms could be grown on space voyages using the abundant cosmic radiation found in our solar system as well as in interstellar space. Farther down the road, study of radiosynthesis could lead to a power generation from nuclear waste and cosmic radiation.