Radiofungi: Biological Pigments for Radioprotection

The Mediated Matter group

A major concern for manned missions is space radiation. Ionizing radiation is known to pose both acute and chronic risks to many organisms, including humans. At this time, it is important to expand strategies for radiation protection, including utilizing new materials and fabrication methods that can withstand different forms of radiation. The Mediated Matter group is researching the synthesis of biological pigments, including melanins and carotenoids, for biocompatible radioprotection. Such pigments can be fabricated for a variety of applications, creating a new class of materials and coatings that can protect life on Earth, in deep space, and beyond. Here, we examine the growth and behavior of five pigment-producing microorganisms after their placement in the interior of the International Space Station for one month as part of the RIDES payload. This experiment payload will launch on the SpaceX CRS-20 on March 6, 2020


The Mediated Matter Group

Certain bacteria and fungi show a remarkable ability to persist—and even thrive—in high-radiation environments. The discovery of fungi inhabiting the interior of the International Space Station and highly irradiated terrestrial sites has led to an interest in organisms like the fungus genus Aspergillus. Some of these organisms form biopolymer pigments such as carotenoids and melanins, which are thought to have an important role in the radioresistance of the organisms. In the ISS in particular, there is a complex set of factors to contend with, including some background radiation (though it is still shielded by the Earth's magnetosphere), chronic microgravity, and elevated carbon dioxide, among others. 

We aim to identify changes that occur in these extreme conditions, and how they may be modulated by the production of or shielding by pigments. Through studying these organisms, we aim to elucidate not only the biological tools that protect and sustain them but gain a deeper understanding of how life can persist in the most hostile of places.  We also are currently studying radiation-specific changes in these organisms through exposure to ionizing radiation at the MIT Nuclear Reactor and MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. In all cases, we seek to analyze changes in growth, morphology, pigment production, and up or downregulation of specific pathways in each species. 

This work is conducted by the Mediated Matter Group as part of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative and is generously supported by the SEI-TRISH Seed Fund.

Research Team:

Sunanda Sharma, Nic Lee, Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, Sara L. Wilson, Neri Oxman


The Mediated Matter Group

Research Topics
#space #biology #zero gravity