Radiation has no effect on them. An extraordinary discovery by scientists in Chernobyl

Radiation has no effect on them.  An extraordinary discovery by scientists in Chernobyl

It appears that small creatures from the areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 are not affected by radiation. Scientists have good news.

Although almost 40 years have passed since the explosion of the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, this topic still electrifies both scientists and travelers. Before the war in Ukraine broke out, tourists could visit the Exclusion Zone around the power plant, although this was mainly under the supervision of qualified guides. For safety reasons, paths have been marked in this area, following which we can stay healthy in the area affected by the disaster. However, new research shows that although radiation is increased in some parts of the zone, it does not affect the creatures living there. At least it doesn't work on tiny nematodes. The newly published analysis draws optimistic conclusions.

Radiation has no effect on nematodes in Chernobyl

New research has shown that nematodes living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) are unaffected by radiation levels present in the area. After analyzing the genomes of microscopic worms, scientists discovered that the creatures' DNA remains completely unchanged despite exposure to ionizing radiation, which we humans consider harmful.

“The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 transformed the area into the most radioactive landscape in the world,” write the authors of the study. Nearly 40 years later, a 30-kilometer area around the site remains derelict due to high levels of lingering radiation, although it is currently unclear how this affects local wildlife.

Did the sudden change in this environment mean that only the species survived, or even the strongest individuals within the species? To investigate this, analysis author Sophia Tintori and her colleagues collected 15 nematodes from different areas of the zone and compared their genomes with those of five other worms of the same species from different parts of the world. Because ionizing radiation can cause double-stranded DNA breaks, researchers suspected that the Chernobyl worms would exhibit “heritable chromosomal rearrangements” passed down through many generations of exposed nematodes. But to their surprise, the CEZ specimens showed no chromosomal differences compared to worms from Germany, the United States, Australia, Mauritius and the Philippines.

Further analysis showed that the Chernobyl nematodes did not display newer acquired mutations compared to their international counterparts, suggesting that their DNA was not damaged by Chernobyl radiation.

Caution above all else

“This does not mean that Chernobyl is safe – rather, it means that nematodes are truly resilient animals and can withstand extreme conditions,” adds the study's author. “We also don't know how long each of the worms we found was in the Zone, so we can't be sure how much radiation exposure they had.”

Wondering whether CEZ nematodes might simply have a special mechanism for repairing damaged DNA, the researchers then exposed the animals to three different mutation-inducing chemicals and observed how these mutations were passed on to future generations. Overall, they found that different strains of nematodes showed different levels of tolerance to these mutagens, but their response could not be predicted based on radiation exposure.

In other words, the Chernobyl worms were no better at protecting their DNA than nematodes from other places, suggesting that radiation levels at the CEZ did not select for strains with higher degrees of genetic resistance. Instead, it appears that nematodes simply “don't care” about ionizing radiation.

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