Following the 1986 Cherobyl accident, approximately two square kilometers of forest around the former Soviet nuclear power plant were declared off-limits to humans. And in a short time, this “zone of alienation” (this is the official term) was transformed into a natural oasis, in which animal and plant life, without man to disturb it, began to thrive again. How was this possible, despite the potentially lethal doses of radiation still polluting the area? A study from Princeton University could have the answer: by analyzing the DNA of wolves living near Chernobyl, the authors have identified the presence of various mutations that appear to give the animals high protection against cancer.
The research was carried out by evolutionary biologist Cara Love, who presented her results during the annual American Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference, which was held in recent weeks in Seattle. In 2014, the scientist, together with a group of colleagues from Princeton, visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone, collecting blood samples from the local wolf population and applying radio collars to some individuals.
The collars were equipped with dosimeters with which the researchers were able to calculate the animals’ exposure to radiation in real time. Which was found to be extremely high even more than thirty years after the nuclear accident: on average, the Chernobyl wolves live with a daily dose of radiation equal to 11.28 millirem, six times higher – explains Love – than the exposure permitted for law to American and European workers.
By analyzing the blood taken from specimens inhabiting the radioactive zone, Love identified various alterations affecting the immune system, similar to those seen in patients undergoing radiotherapy. And by studying their DNA she noticed mutations that appeared in specific regions of the genome, which would seem to have a protective effect against tumors. According to the researcher, they may have appeared as a result of natural selection, as they offer a greater chance of surviving in an area where high levels of radiation make the risk of cancer all too real.
Studying these mutations could offer valuable information for developing new anticancer treatments, but unfortunately Love’s research is suspended for now due to the war in Ukraine. And it is not easy to say when they will be able to resume, because even after the conflict is over the Chernobyl area, already dangerous due to radiation, will be even more lethal for years (if not decades), due to the thousands of anti-personnel mines placed by the fighters in the last two years.