NewsChernobyl discovery reveals worms with extraordinary resilience to radiation

Chernobyl discovery reveals worms with extraordinary resilience to radiation

Unexpected discovery in Chernobyl
Unexpected discovery in Chernobyl
Images source: © Getty Images
6:12 AM EST, March 7, 2024

In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the surrounding region became one of the most contaminated areas on Earth. Despite the human population's evacuation, many plants and animals continue to thrive in this high-radiation zone. Recent observations have shown that some animals within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — a 1,000-square-mile area around the power plant — exhibit physical and genetic differences from their counterparts elsewhere, sparking curiosity about radiation's effects on DNA.

A recent study spearheaded by Sophia Tintori of New York University, in partnership with Ukrainian scientists, reveals that chronic radiation exposure hasn't harmed the genomes of nematodes living in Chernobyl. While this discovery does not suggest the area is now safe, it highlights the exceptional resilience of these rapidly reproducing worms.
"These worms are prolific and undergo many generations of evolution before a typical vertebrate reaches sexual maturity," said Matthew Rockman, a professor of biology at New York University and the study's lead author.

In 2019, Tintori and Rockman, Ukrainian scientists and Timothy Mousseau, a biologist specializing in radiation effects from Chernobyl and Fukushima, ventured into the Exclusion Zone. Their mission was to investigate radiation's tangible impact on the local worm population.

Armed with Geiger counters and protective gear, the team collected worm samples from various locations, ranging from areas with negligible radioactivity to highly hazardous zones. Back in Mousseau's field laboratory, situated in a former residential building in Chernobyl, the team sorted hundreds of nematodes. Further studies were conducted in New York after the initial examination with travel microscopes in a Kyiv hotel.
"We can freeze worms to pause their evolution, a unique advantage when studying animals from different evolutionary backgrounds," Rockman explained.
Focusing on 15 nematodes of the species Oscheius tipulae, the researchers sequenced their genomes and compared them to those of five worms from other locations. Despite employing various analysis methods, they found no evidence of radiation damage in the Chernobyl worms' genomes.
"Chernobyl's safety is not the takeaway here; it's the remarkable resilience of nematodes we're observing," Tintori noted. The longevity of the worms in the Zone remains uncertain, making it difficult to determine their exact exposure levels and that of their ancestors over the past four decades.

The findings offer valuable insights into DNA repair mechanisms and suggest that despite O. tipulae's genetic simplicity, studying these nematodes could improve our understanding of natural variability in humans.

"Now that we've identified more and less DNA damage-resistant strains of O. tipulae, we can explore why some people are more vulnerable to carcinogens than others," Tintori concluded.
**Source: PAP**
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