Almost 37 years later, some areas close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Ukraine) are still dangerous for humans. That terrible accident, the most serious of a nuclear nature that has taken place on the face of the Earth, occurred during the early hours of April 26, 1986. The core of the number four reactor at the plant overheated during a safety test of out of control and melted down, unleashing a human and environmental catastrophe.
The initial confusion caused the first response measures to be slow in coming. In fact, the residents of Pripyat, a city located just 3 km from the nuclear power plant and where a large part of the families of the plant workers lived, took almost 36 hours to be evicted. And during that time they suffered exposure to a level of radiation forty times higher than what human beings are capable of withstanding. The impact that ionizing radiation had on the health of those people was devastating.
This form of radiation is characterized by transporting the energy necessary to ionize the atoms of the medium or matter with which it interacts. Ionization is a physicochemical process that results in ion formation, which are atoms or molecules that acquire an electrical charge due to the capture or loss of electrons. When an atom has the same number of electrons orbiting around the nucleus as there are protons in the nucleus, its net electric charge is neutral.
However, if there is an excess or deficiency of electrons, it will acquire a negative or positive electrical charge respectively. Ions with a net negative charge are called anions, and those with a positive electrical charge are cations. The problem posed by ionizing radiation when it interacts with the tissues of living beings is that it can break chemical bonds, modifying the structure of the chains of atoms. In fact, it can even irreparably damage DNA, triggering very serious diseases in living beings.
Dogs have managed to adapt to the extremely aggressive environment of Chernobyl
The adaptability of living beings is amazing. Well into April 27, 1986, the buses that had to evacuate the inhabitants of the city began to arrive in Pripyat, and most of them left quickly with what they were wearing. There they left almost all their belongings, and they were also forced to abandon their pets. Many of those little animals were dogs, and some of them managed to make a living in the vicinity of the plant and survive long enough to have offspring.
Today there are hundreds of dogs roaming Chernobyl, and many of them descend from those pets that were abandoned to their fate in 1986.
Today there are hundreds of dogs roaming Chernobyl, and many of them descend from those pets that were abandoned to their fate in 1986. Curiously, 302 of these dogs are being studied by various scientists from different research centers, such as the University of South Carolina. or the National Human Genome Research Institute, both in the United States, with the purpose of characterizing its genetic structure. These animals belong to three different populations that have lived either inside the nuclear power plant or at a distance of between 15 and 45 km from “ground zero”.
It is amazing to see that a population of living beings has managed to survive for decades inside the damaged nuclear plant. But yes, surprising as it may seem to us, it has. This is precisely the phenomenon that has drawn the attention of the researchers I have just mentioned. In the very interesting article that they have published in ScienceAdvances they try to understand how the genetic mechanism works that has helped them to adapt to such a hostile environment and to transmit their genetic heritage to several generations of dogs whose strength is beyond doubt.
The knowledge that these scientists are collecting can make a difference in the future to the extent that it can help us understand what human beings must do to survive in environments as aggressive as some areas around Chernobyl still are today. In addition, they are managing to identify the DNA mutations that have been able to help these animals adapt and survive. However, beyond scientific knowledge, their article also includes a glimmer of hope: “Although they have been raised in the wild, they still greatly enjoy interacting with humans, especially when food is involved,” these researchers point out in their article.
Images: Clean Futures
More information: ScienceAdvances