Bacteria-Based Radiation Shielding

Some research by the Air Force is changing the way some people approach ionizing radiation and, more interestingly, protection from these dangerous rays. Ever since its discovery, radiation has posed a problem for physicists and engineers, pilots and astronauts, and even electronic equipment. Typically, creating adequate shielding has revolved around creating large barriers of lead, or hardening electronic equipment against the damaging effects of radiation, but some guys in the Air Force are taking a new approach to resisting radiation: They’re using bacteria.

It’s no secret that simple organisms like bacteria and viruses can live in extremely harsh environments, and environments bathed in radiation are no exception, but a specific strain of bacteria (Deinococcus radioduran) resists the effects of radiation by utilizing a special manganese compound that shields its DNA from damage that occurs during the process of radiation absorption. Dr. Michael Daly, an AFOSR-funded scientist, thinks that these manganese compounds could provide fantastic new insight into creating biological and non-biological shields for everything from pilots to fuel tanks to medical patients.

Unfortunately, the problem with the bacteria, and consequently, biomaterials made from this bacteria, is its reliability. For organisms that can stand extremely harsh conditions, such as radiation or high heat, they have problems with other issues like susceptibilities to extreme cold or a general lack of structural integrity. The holy grail of these biomaterials would revolve around fusing or exporting the strengths of these bacteria into one super material without any of the weaknesses, and, as Dr. Daly’s research has shown, this is a definite possibility, but there is still some work to be done.


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