Stowaways that made the first space station stink

Humans are bags of fragile bones and organs that need to be stored under the right conditions to flourish. But we push the limits of these conditions all the time and dare to see how far we can go: the hottest, the coldest, the lowest, the highest we can bear, using our ingenuity to design ways to survive.

Mushrooms do not have to be so clever. Some fungi can survive at extreme temperatures and without oxygen.

They can lie dormant and wait for the right conditions to wake up, warm up and spread. They can grow in soil, in wood, on plastic, on pollution. Why would they not be able to survive space?

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We already know that they can — at least in the context of man-made space stations, where many types of fungi have successfully grown, sometimes in a monitored capacity as part of experiments to determine the viability of different kinds of life under them. conditions, and sometimes. . . does not.

Me, the first modular space station, was built in a low orbit around the Earth in 1986 – what a science and engineering work – and it served as a research laboratory until its orbit expired in 2001. When I think about it, I thought about it, I imagine Me as a perfect, clean environment, innovative and experimental. But that was not the case; those who visited Me commented on being hit by the smell first. British chemist Steve Pearce described it as a mixture of sweaty feet, nail polish remover, body odor and vodka. He later tried to recreate the odor as part of a NASA experiment. This unique scent may be due in part to stews on board Me it came as a shock to the astronauts: bacteria and fungi that lived happily behind panels, on spacesuits, on cables, and around window frames. The discovery led to a stream of news articles at the time. If you’ve ever wondered if fearlessness in the media has spread to mushrooms, look back at the BBC News article on Thursday 8 March 2001 entitled ‘Mutant Fungus from Space’. It only needs an exclamation point or two to make it a 1950s science fiction movie. With Me by returning to Earth, the article supports the idea that the fungi on board will have mutated to the point where they can do “serious harm to humanity.”

The International Space Station, first launched in 1998, has had similar fungal problems, and studies suggest that the fungi with large amounts of melanin thrive under space station conditions and are better suited to withstand high levels of radiation. The genera of fungi found surviving in the ruins of the Chernobyl reactor, such as Cladosporium, has also been discovered aboard the ISS, along with Penicillium and Aspergillus. The possibility of mutation, caused by the effect of radiation, is still under investigation, although the real area of ​​concern remains fungi that can survive outside of craft, exposed to open space, rather than within the space-friendly framework of a space station. An organism that grows above solar panels, says, or enters the exterior of a multi-million-dollar craft to cause destruction just the places that cannot be reached without extreme difficulty could endanger the future of space travel.

This is not exclusively a theoretical problem area. There are fungi that surprisingly survive in the open space. A Russian experiment in 2009 with space exposure called Biorisk revealed that both Aspergillus versicolor and Penicillium expansum underwent changes while exposed for seven months that helped them survive, increasing their layers of melanin to resist radiation.

If a space station creates happy mushrooms, and even open space does not necessarily pose a problem, where should you go? NASA has investigated the possibility of using mycelia to create living shelter on Mars using melanin-rich fungi to absorb radiation and protect the human inhabitants inside. If mycelia can create strong, flexible structures on Earth, they may well offer such opportunities elsewhere, and they could be constructed, efficiently grown on site, making them easier to transport. They also offer the suggestion of easy, organic disposal after use, which puts a bit of a strain on the foreign environment.

A mycelial home on Mars – a magnificent achievement for both humans and fungi, if a species’ success lies in its ability to adapt to the most challenging conditions. We have both done just that: we break out of our planet, into our rockets, with our plans. We are both destined to spread. And we will eventually and inevitably decay.

Extracts from Mushroom Secret Life: Discoveries from a Hidden World by Aliya Whiteley (Pegasus Books).


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