I'm sketching out a scenario for a relatively far-futuristic story wherein humans have spread throughout the solar system, using the extreme ends of bioforming and gene-splicing to supplement their efforts at terraforming.

One of the obvious adaptations for colonizing other planets (or objects, even like food-producing O'Neill Cylinders) would be organisms with modified chlorophyll to take advantage of different light spectrum.

Jupiter's radiation belt is such a sterilizing death-trap, though, it seems to be the biggest obstacle to my story's key setting with the Galilean moons. Does Jupiter emit any radiation on a spectrum which could conceivably be captured and utilized by bioformed chlorophyll? Or is it all pretty much a no-go zone under current science?


2 Answers 2


Convert ionizing radiation to visible light using radioluminescence.


Radioluminescence is the phenomenon by which light is produced in a material by bombardment with ionizing radiation such as alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays.


Your plants capture energy using the same old chloroplasts they always have. The new trick is radioluminescence. The plants are engineered to produce pigments which are excited by ionizing radiation like alpha particles. On excitation the pigments glow in frequencies that can then be harvested by the chloroplasts.

In your plants these pigments serve double duty in that they protect the DNA of the plant from damage by incoming charged particles, which would otherwise be mutagenic. T

The design of biological radioluminescent molecules is an active area of research. Most of them seem similar to porphyrins or chlorophyl which are also electromagnetic energy capture molecules (or can serve that way in the case of porphyrins); a biomolecule holding a metal atom.

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    $\begingroup$ I was wondering if you could also just have transparent absorbing shields for the radiation, that contained scintillating materials or phosphors and convert the radiation to light the plants could use. I wasn't sure if the radiation flux would be enough to produce enough light to be useful. The radioluminescent molecules would be more elegant and eliminate the weight of shielding. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Jun 7, 2020 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ @UVphoton - I was initially thinking the same; that is doable w current tech because you could make your pigments in a factory. It would be a very cool science fair project, if you are allowed to have hard radiation in your science fair project. But you really have a fancy greenhouse then, and can just grow okra like people do. OP wants engineering and so I presume outside plants. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 7, 2020 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @UVphoton That's a great add-on. I love the insight of the radio-luminescence as a source for energy also doubling as a radiation shield. My story concept involves some handwavium to explain some terraforming of moons, but this is an excellent practical angle for a lot of my scenarios. $\endgroup$
    – dozTK421
    Jun 8, 2020 at 0:17

There was an article a few years ago where it was thought that certain one-celled organisms (found near Chernobyl) used a form of melanin could use energy obtained from radiation.


"Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhance"s the Growth of Melanized Fungi". The introduction to the paper is pretty fascinating...

The term “melanin” originates from melanos - a Greek word for black. Melanin is a high molecular weight pigment, ubiquitous in nature, with a variety of biological functions [1]. Many fungi constitutively synthesize melanin [2], which is likely to confer a survival advantage in the environment [3] by protecting against UV and solar radiation [reviewed in 4]. Melanized microorganisms inhabit some remarkably extreme environments including high altitude, Arctic and Antarctic regions [5]. Most dramatically, melanized fungal species colonize the walls of the highly radioactive damaged reactor at Chernobyl [6] and surrounding soils [7]. These findings, and the laboratory observations of the resistance of melanized fungi to ionizing radiation [8], [9], suggest a role for this pigment in radioprotection.

The role of melanin in microorganisms living in high electromagnetic radiation fluxes is even more intriguing when the pigment is considered from a paleobiological perspective. Many fungal fossils appear to be melanized [10], [11]. Melanized fungal spores are common in the sediment layers of the early Cretaceous period when many species of animals and plants died out which coincides with the Earth's crossing the “magnetic zero” resulting in the loss of its : “shield” against cosmic radiation [12]. Additionally, radiation from a putative passing star called Nemesis has been suggested as a cause of extinction events [13]. The proliferation of melanotic fungi may even have contributed to the mass extinctions at the end of Cretaceous period [14]. A symbiotic association of plants and a melanotic fungus that allows for extreme thermotolerance has been attributed to heat dissipating properties of melanin [15]. Melanotic fungi inhabit the extraordinarly harsh climate of Antarctica [5]. Hence, melanins are ancient pigments that have probably been selected because they enhance the survival of melanized fungi in diverse environments and, perhaps incidentally, in various hosts. The emergence of melanin as a non-specific bioprotective material may be a result of the relative ease with which these complicated aromatic structures can be synthesized from a great variety of precursors [2], [4], [5], [16]–[23].

I think that this could be in the realm of genetic engineering, and suggests that it could also be of use in the cold, harsh environment of the moons of Jupiter.

I suppose you could also have a different type of approach where the damage could be measured and corrected through some type of gene therapy that could be used in combination with genetically engineered organisms.

Jupiter is far enough away that the light from the sun will be dim, so there may be need to collect or focus the sunlight. If it is about 1/25 the intensity of light on earth then instead of capturing about 1000 W/m^2, there would only be about 40 W/m^2 so some type of artificial lighting might be necessary. So that might also figure into your genetic engineering.


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