Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Radiation Fed Fungi to Feed Future Flyers

Who says you can never profit from tragedy? Scientists exploring the inside of the Chernobyl reactor vessel, the source of the world's greatest unintentional nuclear disaster have discovered a black fungus that apparently thrives on the radiation therein. New research shows that many melanin-rich fungi like radiation. The melanin functions much the same as chlorophyll does in plants in these organisms. The article speculates that future astronauts may be able to feast on fungi formerly bathed in the hard radiation of space.

While I find the radiation utilizing fungi to be of interest from a biological point of view -- yet another example of how little we know about the many ways life manages to survive -- I am reminded of a cautionary tale of mushrooms, astronauts, enclosed spaces and the unforeseen side-effects of combining them.

The article was one of these speculation-rich stories that should be filed away under 'trivia' somewhere in the dark recesses of one's mind -- to be otherwise ignored until Alex Trebeck poses the appropriate question. So many space-related news stories fall into this same category. 'Earth-like planet discovered' was another one, which dealt with Gliese 876 -- a planet 17 times more massive than the earth, orbiting 2 million miles away from it's primary star, and with a surface temperature of molten lead. I talked to the story's author who also questioned why the astronomer's spun their announcement to sound like a new earth had been discovered (rather than a new freakishly bloated version of Mercury), and the consensus was that the astronomers 'sexed-up' the press release so the general public wouldn't ignore it entirely. The same effect happened in a SpaceDaily story about NASA working towards public travel by hypersonic aircraft -- coming to your local airport in about another 50 years or so. Terribly great sexy news, except it had practically no relevance to any persons currently living.

Personally, I think stories like this do more harm than good. The cyclic raising and dashing of the reader's hopes create's more cynical people like me. It's like the boy who cried wolf. After awhile, people start ignoring the sexy announcements, and the interesting science behind them gets ignored too.


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