At high doses, radiation can have terrible and lethal effects on humans and nonhuman animals alike. But what if organisms could adapt to low-levels of radiation? This is what an international group of researchers are suggesting in a bird study published recently in Functional Ecology, reports The Economist.
the researchers took feather and blood samples from 13 species
In the study, researchers looked at the long term effects of low-dose radiation in bird populations near Chernobyl in Ukraine — the site of the catastrophic 1986 nuclear accident. Previous studies have demonstrated that birds in that area have better survival rates than those near the Japanese Fukushima reactor that experienced a meltdown in 2011. Researchers think that's because these birds have had more time to adapt to radiation. So they decided to test this theory by taking feathers and blood samples from 13 species of birds in both low- and high-radiation areas surrounding the Ukrainian reactor. They found that birds living in high-radiation areas had much higher levels of glutathione in their blood. Glutathione is an antioxidant that helps animals get rid of the highly reactive, damaging molecules that are created when radiation comes in contact with biological tissues.
Furthermore, high glutathione levels were linked to lower amounts of genetic damage in the birds' cells. "In other words," the researchers write in a summary of their study, "these findings indicate that chronic exposure to radiation has favored adaptation of birds to the damaging effects of radiation."