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NASA’s Orion Takes Fungi to the Moon and Back, in Breakthrough Research Project

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is working on a NASA-funded project to find innovative ways of protecting astronauts and their equipment against radiation in space. And they’re doing it by sending fungi on a trip around the moon.
Drs. Zachary Schultzhaus, Zheng Wang, and Jillian Romsdahl from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory began the fungi study in 2019. 1 photo
NASA’s Orion capsule will be taking fungal samples into space, on a 3-week ride around the moon, which is planned for later this year, or the beginning of 2022. This is part of an experiment designed to provide more information about fungi’s natural defense mechanisms against radiation, which could prove to be very useful for developing protective mechanism for astronauts.

If you’re wondering what’s so great about fungi, it’s that they have a very high resistance to radiation. Not only can they protect themselves against radiation (mainly due to their melanin content), but they can even repair DNA damage caused by it, thanks to certain DNA repair pathways. This is why researchers at NRL have selected Aspergillus niger for this study. It’s a black mold that is typically used in laboratories, but also one that’s been detected on the International Space Station (ISS).

For the experiment, 4 different Aspergillus samples will be launched into space. The objective is to compare a wild type strain with 3 lab-engineered strains, in order to learn more about the fungi’s natural defense mechanisms. One of the mutated strains won’t be able to produce melanin, and the other 2 will lack the DNA repair pathways. All of them will be launched into space, while the Orion capsule travels around the moon, and then they will be carried back and NASA will send the samples back to NRL, for analysis.

There, scientists will compare the samples and analyze all the DNA changes and other bio-molecular changes. As humble as may seem at first sight, the Aspergillus fungi will actually provide insight into how biological systems adapt to space conditions, which is essential for future travels to Mars.

Besides the Orion capsule, NRL is planning to also use NASA’s Antarctic balloon platform, in a similar project, to study how fungi can adapt to deep space conditions.

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