It sounds like something right out of a horror film: strange growths of possible biological origin are discovered around a nuclear waste site, but experts have no idea what they may be, let alone how anything could potentially grow so close to harmful radioactivity.
While it may sound like science fiction, this is the exact scenario that was outlined in a recent report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, in response to the discovery of several submerged barrels containing radioactive substances at the Savannah River Site that were covered in a strange, cobweb-like “growth.”
According to the report, “The growth, which resembles a spider web, has yet to be characterized, but may be biological in nature.” An article recently featured in the Augusta Chronicle related that the odd material “was found among thousands of spent fuel assemblies submerged in deep pools within the site’s L Area.”
While this certainly sounds like the stuff of a well-spun H.P. Lovecraft story, the notion that certain life can exist within areas of the of Earth’s harshest extremities constitutes a rather fascinating branch of the natural sciences unto itself. Back in October of this year, I made reference to a remarkably similar sort of “extremophilia” among life forms, first discovered at none other than the famous site of the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine:
In 2007, researchers first discovered several varieties of black mold growing around the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine; some of which were literally growing within the destroyed reactor. Samples were collected by robots, since the area still has potentially deadly levels of radioactivity, and researchers with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine began studying how the curious little fungi could survive in such a hostile environment. Incredibly, the molds were found to grow and absorb acetate faster in an environment when exposed to radiation 500 times higher than what are generally considered safe levels. Containing high levels of the pigment melanin, the molds were apparently capable of converting gamma radiation.
Quite obviously, we cannot discount the possibility that the Savannah “cobwebs” aren’t a similar sort of organism that is somehow immune to the otherwise deadly effects of exposure to radiation (and that, of course, is in the event that the the supposed organisms were in fact exposed to radiation, which has still yet to be confirmed at present). This also would show us that, while the existence of such an organism might be strange, it also has potential for being more common than we might initially have guessed.
Robert T. Gonzales, writing for i09.com, similarly noted that, “Organisms with a natural resistance to radiation are said to be “radioresistant,” and certainly do exist; Deinococcus radiodurans, for example, is not only one of the most naturally radioresistant organisms on Earth, we’ve actually genetically engineered Deinococcus that can be used in the treatment of radioactive waste.” It is a remarkable prospect, indeed, to consider how genetic manipulation of particular varieties of extremophiles could be used to deal with harmful substances, or to perform a variety of other beneficial duties that otherwise could be harmful to humans.
This kind of talk, of course, may end up having little or nothing to do with the proposed “Savannah River Spider Webs,” however; at least until results have shown conclusively that the alleged growths observed at the site are indeed biological in nature. With time, we’ll have our answers… but until then, this latest instance of the alleged discovery of an extreme organism will have to remain within the confines of our “what if” folder.