The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine saw high doses of radiation blasted into the surrounding area.

The long-term effects on living organisms are of high interest to scientists in a range of applications, including medicine and conservation.

But one team of scientists from Nasa is studying organisms in the Chernobyl area for a different reason - to create a 'sunblock' for humans living in space.

Last year, scientists from Nasa sent eight fungi species from the Chernobyl exlusion zone into space where they were placed on board the International Space Station.


These eight strains appeared in the wake of the 1986 disaster, and two strains particularly seemed to thrive on radioactive surfaces.

Speaking to Motherboard, Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran, who led the study, said: "The radiation seen at Chernobyl is high, but this black fungi popped up first [after the meltdown] compared even to the bacteria.

"That is how we selected those fungi, from such a radiation-rich environment.

"These fungi persisted due to some sort of protein-coding and biomolecule information that protect against the radiation level."

The researchers are hoping to study these fungi to develop a 'sunblock' for outer space radiation that could be used to protect astronauts from harmful radiation.

While the study is in the early stages, with the fungi recently returned to Earth, the researchers are keen to continue working on the sunblock.

Dr Venkateswaran said: "We have to take all the precautions before building a human habitation on Mars and beyond."

Studying living organisms near Chernobyl can also help scientists to create crops that can survive radiation in space, and could even be used to grow plants on other planets.

Some strains of fungi thrive in a radiation-rich environment. Photo / 123RF
Some strains of fungi thrive in a radiation-rich environment. Photo / 123RF

While the area around Chernobyl has significantly higher radiation levels that spacecrafts will, the ways that crops develop tolerance to contaminated areas could give clues about how plants survive cosmic radiation.

Dr Venkateswaran said: "Radiation-resistant genes can be incorporated into yeast cells that produce beer so that humans are willing to go to space - they will have a better beer to drink."

Areas of high radiation could even help scientists in the search for alien life.

Previous studies have seen flax crops grown at Chernobyl, which have demonstrated increased resistance to contamination.

This led some researchers to wonder whether their genes are a kind of 'time capsule' to the beginning of early life - both on Earth, and on other planets.

Speaking to Motherboard, Dr Martin Hajduch, who led the study into flax, said: "My favourite speculation is that when life on Earth was evolving, radioactivity was much more present on Earth's surface than is today.

"And so the plants are somehow 'remembering' it, [which is] what helped them to adapt in Chernobyl's radioactive area."