Can the dogs of Chornobyl teach us new tricks on survival?
More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl dogs roam the rotting, abandoned buildings in and around the shuttered plant, somehow still managing to find food, breed and survive.
Scientists hope that studying these dogs can teach humans new tricks on how to survive in the harshest, most difficult environments.
They published the first of many genetic studies in the journal Science Advances on Friday, focusing on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. They found populations whose different levels of radiation can be genetically distinguished from each other and from other dogs around the world.
“We had this golden opportunity” to lay the groundwork to answer the important question. “How do you survive in such a hostile environment for 15 generations?” said geneticist Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the study’s many authors.
Author Tim Musso, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said dogs “provide an incredible tool to look at the effects of this type of environment” on mammals in general.
The environment at Chernobyl is uniquely harsh. On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at a Ukrainian power plant released radioactive emissions into the atmosphere. Thirty workers died in the immediate aftermath, while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning is estimated to eventually reach the thousands.
The researchers say most of the dogs they study appear to be descendants of pets that residents were forced to leave behind when they evacuated the area.
Musso has been working in the Chernobyl region since the late 1990s and began collecting blood from dogs around 2017. Some of the dogs live in a power plant, a dystopian, industrial setting. Others are about 9 miles (15 kilometers) or 28 miles (45 kilometers) away.
At first, Ostrander said, they thought the dogs might interbreed enough over time that they would be the same. But with DNA, they could easily identify dogs living at high, low, and moderate levels of radiation.
“That was a huge breakthrough for us,” Ostrander said. “And the amazing thing is that we can even identify the families”—about 15 different ones.
Now researchers can start looking for changes in the DNA.
“We can compare them and say: Okay, what’s different, what’s changed, what’s mutated, what’s evolved, what’s helping you, what’s hurting you at the DNA level?’ Ostrander said: This would involve separating non-consequential DNA changes from targeted ones.
Scientists say the research could have wide-ranging applications, providing insights into how animals and humans might live now and in the future in regions of the world under “continuous environmental assault” and in the high-radiation environment of space.
Dr. Kari Ekenstedt, a veterinarian who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the research, says it’s a first step toward answering important questions about how chronic exposure to higher levels of radiation affects large mammals. For example, he said: “Will it change their genome at a rapid rate?”
The researchers have already begun further research, which will mean more time with the dogs at a site about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Kiev. Musso said he and his colleagues were last there in October last year and did not see any war-related activity. Musso said the team has become close to some of the dogs, naming one Prancer because he runs around excitedly when he sees people.
“Even though they’re wild, they still enjoy human interaction a lot,” she said, “Especially when there’s food involved.” ___
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Science and Education Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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