Friday, June 20, 2014

Life that thrives on radiation

I recently saw Godzilla.

It's already received plenty of flak and a full review from ESE might be in the offing, but for now I want to concentrate on a few thoughts the film generated for me.  Namely, can there really be organisms that thrive on radiation?

Turns out there are.  The first example that I found goes all the way back to 1995, although the initial discovery of the lifeform is listed as 1956.  This article from New Scientist (you'll need to register to read the whole thing, sorry) speaks of a form of bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans that can absorb several thousand times the amount of radiation that would kill a human.  Each one of these bacterium carry several copies of their single-loop chromosome, allowing them to survive breaks and splits in the DNA chain.

Closer to our present time is this 2006 post based on an article appearing in Science.  Several hearty researchers descended into gold mines in South Africa and uranium mines elsewhere, braving natural gas and extreme to find water-filled fractures as yet uncontaminated by humans.  The findings in the uranium mines were of particular interest.

The microscopic organisms in those locations two miles down cannot, of course, obtain sunlight.  Instead, they rely upon radiation from the uranium.  The radiation creates hydrogen from decomposed water and that in turn leads to reactions between hydrogen and sulfate.  The organisms live off of the chemical waste.

Even better.  A 2007 piece from Science Daily tells of fungi that devour radiation as an energy source.  While not as sophisticated as the massive kaiju featured in the film, fungi are much more complex organisms than bacteria and that alone is compelling.

What this means for us is not nearly as significant as the implications for exobiology.  Space is full of deadly radiation.  This, it turns out, may not prevent life from forming on the micro scale and living...perhaps even thriving...just beneath the rocky surface of planets and asteroids previously thought to be entirely barren.  Granted it would likely not be intelligent life, but it would be solid evidence of life existing off of our planet.

Then again, that brings to mind a few interesting scenarios.  What if there are highly intelligent microorganisms?  What if they survive via a parasitic arrangement?  By that, I mean they inhabit the body of a larger, intelligent lifeform such as humans.  The tiny organisms, however, are fully self-aware and in control of their host.  Are they already here?  Might explain a few things.

I'm sure it's been done.

Even better.  What kinds of life will we find in Fukushima one day?

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