Life Will Go On

After we’ve collapsed our civilization and made huge swaths of the planet uninhabitable, it’s just going to open up new opportunities for others. They won’t be others that are interesting, in the sense that we are (in the sense that we mine oil and burn it and fly through the air and argue about going to Mars) but life’s going to be hard to completely eradicate.

Not that we aren’t trying.

One of my news-searches is things relating to Chernobyl because, for various reasons, it’s been a beacon in my life regarding human ability to understand risk. There are plenty of other examples, but Chernobyl’s a great one. How do humans balance optimism against pessimism when they decide things? The usual answer is obvious: follow the money. But it’s not always like that. It’s just that way often enough that we’re probably fucked as a species, and all the mammals bigger than a mouse along with us.

Ready-made a Chernobyl, mjr 2011

Extremophile bacteria will probably do fine; some of them live 14+ miles down in the Earth, where the affairs on the surface are largely irrelevant. Although, it sounds as though either evolution has filled a new niche or some of them have migrated: [fox]

A type of black fungus that eats radiation was discovered inside the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

In 1991, the strange fungus was found growing up the walls of the reactor, which baffled scientists due to the extreme, radiation-heavy environment.

Researchers eventually realized that not only was the fungi impervious to the deadly radiation, it seemed to be attracted to it.

A decade later, researchers tested some of the fungi and determined that it had a large amount of the pigment melanin — which is also found, among other places, in the skin of humans.

Melanin is interesting – it converts something like 98% of the UV radiation that hits it, into heat. Thanks, god, titanium dioxide would probably have been better. But for these extremophiles, it’s sufficient to drive a metabolism.

“Large quantities of highly melanized fungal spores have been found in early Cretaceous period deposits when many species of animals and plants died out. This period coincides with Earth’s crossing the “magnetic zero” resulting in the loss of its “shield” against cosmic radiation,” the paper’s introduction states.

The fungi indicate that there could be places in the cosmos — which we are unaware of — where organisms could live in radiation-filled environments.

Places in the cosmos? How about post-human Earth?

bus at the Jupiter plant, mjr 2011


  1. lumipuna says

    Life imitates art, in the concept of fungus-dominated post-apocalyptic ecosystem:

    More seriously, the idea of melanin radiosynthesis* in fungi seems to be only tentative, though highly intriguing.

    * I just made up this word on spot – I reckon ordinary photosynthesis could be considered a subset of radiosynthesis, since it deals with visible light, which constitutes a small part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.

  2. lumipuna says

    If it’s indeed true that melanin functions as an energy harvesting pigment … I had to wonder why melanin isn’t abundant in green plants, especially in light limited conditions, if it absorbs radiation so effectively across a broad spectrum. Why isn’t it part of any common photosynthetic machinery?

    One explanation could be that melanin is very inefficient in harvesting chemical energy, compared to actual photosynthetic pigments, which focus on a narrow spectrum area – the part that constitutes the bulk of daylight, and that our eyes are also specialized in detecting. In green plants, melanin would be blocking light from more efficient pigments, converting it to heat with almost no chemical energy yield. Instead, it would provide both radiation protection and a marginal energy source for organisms that aren’t photosynthetic in a proper sense.

  3. bmiller says

    lumpina: You might be intrigued by the science fiction of Jeff Vandermeer. All about the shrooms and the shroom people!

  4. garnetstar says

    Wow, this is interesting. So, I’m assuming that most of the radiation the melanin harvests is alpha particles? Or the lower-energy beta particles? I would think, not actual gamm rays, which in theory would not be absorbed by a pigment and would be damaging to any cell.
    Hmm. Just learned that my local drinking water has a fairly high level of radium in it. Wondering how to turn this melanin thing to my advantage……:)

  5. bmiller says

    the manga actually looks interesting, though. :) I want to find some of the translated versions.

  6. dangerousbeans says

    Yep, I’m not even confident that we will manage to make ourselves extinct, let alone the rest of the planet. Some insects will survive, small mammals, the more adaptive sea creatures. Billions of people will die, but we only need small populations to survive for the species to continue. Its really fucking depressing

    Radiosythentic fungi are cool, and entirely plausible. There’s an energy gradient, why shouldn’t life exploit it?

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