Worms Living Near Chernobyl Developed New ‘Superpower’


In a new study, researchers looked at insects taken from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) to see what types of genetic mutations were caused by dangerously high radiation levels. After the nuclear explosion, approximately 2,600 square kilometers of the area surrounding the power plant was deemed unsafe for human habitation, but plants and animals continued to call the area home. What researchers found after analyzing the insects has been described by some as a 'superpower'.

Collecting samples in CEZ

After the explosion in 1986, Chernobyl and the surrounding area became the most radioactive area on Earth. While humans had to be evacuated from the area and are still banned from visiting, plants and animals continue to inhabit the radioactive environment. Radiation has caused genetic mutations, resulting in new animal species that differ from animals not exposed to radiation.

A team of biologists from New York University conducted a study to get a better idea of the effects of radiation on species living in the area. "Chornobyl was a tragedy of unimaginable scale, but we still have little understanding of the disaster's effects on local populations," said Sofia Tintori, lead author of the study. "Did sudden environmental change select for species, or even individuals of a species, that are naturally more resistant to ionizing radiation?"

To conduct the research, the team collected hundreds of nematodes from different areas of the CEZ, including leaf litter, soil and rotten fruits. Due to dangerous levels of radiation for humans, they had to wear protective suits to protect themselves from radioactive dust. Now, research shows that these nematodes have developed a new 'superpower'.

Why study nematodes?

Nematodes are microscopic worms that can be found practically everywhere and are exceptionally hardy. In the past, researchers have observed nematodes reawakening after being frozen in permafrost for thousands of years. However, what makes them particularly ideal for this study is that they are short lived, so their 'generational' response to toxins, their DNA repair abilities and their biological evolution can all be analyzed in this one sample. Can be done in sets.

"These insects live everywhere, and they live quickly, so they go through dozens of generations of evolution while a typical vertebrate is still wearing its shoes," said Matthew Rockman, professor of biology at NYU and senior author of the study. Is." "We can cryopreserve the worms, and then thaw them for later study," he explained. "This means we can stop evolution from happening in the laboratory, which is impossible with most other animal models, and this is very valuable when we want to compare animals that have experienced different evolutionary histories." "

Comparing nematode samples has revealed surprising results

The CEZ nematode samples were compared with other samples taken from locations around the world, including the US, Australia, the Philippines, Germany and Mauritius. As expected, their genetic distance from other nematodes proved that they were more genetically similar than their distant geographical counterparts, but surprisingly, there were no obvious signs of DNA damage from radiation. His 'superpower' is that he appears to be immune to it.

The study found that there was no correlation between the mutation rates of the worms and the strength of the ambient radiation from the specific environment from which they were collected. In other words, samples taken closer to the center of the CEZ did not show higher rates of mutation than samples collected from the outskirts of the CEZ. Additionally, testing of descendants of the worm strains proved that there was no connection with the ambient radiation their ancestors were exposed to.

What this might mean for future research

While these new findings are notable, they do not mean that the CEZ is a safe, hospitable place. In fact, we know that this area will not be safe for human habitation for thousands of years. Instead, research suggests that insects were able to evolve some form of resilience to the conditions to which they were subjected. This may help in future research on DNA repair mechanisms, which could potentially later be adapted for use in human medicine.

Tintari said, "Now that we know which strains of O. tipula are more sensitive or more tolerant to DNA damage, we can use these strains to study how different individuals respond to others. Why are they more likely to suffer from the effects of carcinogens than "Thinking about how individuals respond differently to DNA-damaging agents in the environment is something that will help us have a clearer view of our risk factors."

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