Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, created a unique laboratory for studying the long-term effects of radiation on living creatures. Turns out, things continue to grow pretty well
in the soil near the old reactor.
New biological techniques allow scientists to measure exactly how the plants are switching on and off their genes to respond to their unusual circumstances. You might expect that the plants are radically changing, but a new study in flax plants finds that they made only minor adjustments in their genetic expression profiles relative to a control group grown far from the site.
"Based on the observed changes, the proteome of seeds from plants grown in radio-contaminated soil display minor adjustments to multiple signaling pathways," wrote the authors of the new paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
When scientists look at the "proteome," they are measuring the proteins that are produced by an organism's genes. When we say DNA is our "genetic code," what we mean is that it encodes the instructions for how to make those proteins, which are the body's molecular machines. Of the 720 protein spots that the scientists looked at, only 35 of them differed meaningfully between the Chernobyl plants and their cousins planted in normal soil.
The work is part of an ongoing line of research into just how bad radiation is over the long term. We know from atomic weapons research that a lot of radiation is very bad for every living thing, but we don't know the precise impacts of lower levels of radioactive cesium and strontium.