Magazine article Science News

Radiation Damages Chernobyl Children

Magazine article Science News

Radiation Damages Chernobyl Children

Article excerpt

Survivors of the fiery meltdown of Reactor 4 in Chernobyl a decade ago won't welcome the news that radiation has altered the genetic legacy they have passed on to their children. But that is precisely what a team of Russian and British scientists has concluded in a report that began to draw critical fire from other researchers even before it appeared in the April 25 Nature. The study, published on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union, suggests that parents exposed to radiation acquired measurable mutations in their germ cells. Those cells-sperm and eggs-contain the genetic building blocks of future generations. Before Chernobyl exposed some 5 million people to radioactive fallout, survivors of the U.S. bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki formed the only large populations exposed to significant amounts of radiation. After World War II, the United States and Japan set up a joint research effort in Hiroshima to study those populations. Forty years later, no scientist from either nation has produced evidence of genetic problems in survivors' children.

The Hiroshima findings come largely from studies of birth defects and major chromosomal damage, however. Researchers have only recently begun using the techniques of molecular biology to examine genes.

Now, Yuri E. Dubrova of the University of Leicester in England and his colleagues claim they have found "the first scientific evidence that germline mutation rates in humans can be increased by ionizing radiation." Other researchers, such as James Neel of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a 40-year veteran of the Hiroshima research, are not so sure. "I am very doubtful that the findings of these investigations are due to the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster," Neel says.

Dubrova's team compared specific gene segments isolated from the blood of people in 79 families that live in heavily contaminated Belarus with those from members of 105 unexposed families in the United Kingdom. …

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