Radiation causes damage to living tissue. That much has been known to be true ever since Pierre Curie placed a tube of radium salts in his jacket only to find a skin burn 30 minutes later, underneath the layers of cloth. The cause is the high-energy radiation. Nuclear radiation can be broken down into 3 basic types. Alpha radiation is dangerous if inhaled, or if it enters a cut, but otherwise it’ll just bounce off your skin. Beta particles are slightly more dangerous, and might require a pane of glass to protect you. Gamma rays may require several meters of lead shielding to protect you. All three types of radiation can be given off by the nuclear isotopes scattered into the atmosphere by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
When the Chernobyl reactor lost containment and began to burn, radioactive isotopes were thrown up into the air (riding on the plumes of smoke) and polluted an area some 20 miles across, an area now known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It was believed by scientists, based on all knowledge available, that no life could hope to survive there for a long time, perhaps hundreds of years. The reason is that our bodies can’t differentiate between, for example, regular calcium and radioactive calcium. The difference between the two forms of calcium is a nuclear one, not a chemical one, which is a topic deserving of future discussion but it can simply be accepted for now. Our bodies can’t tell the difference. All of the radioactive remnants of Chernobyl – still happily emitting alpha, beta, and gamma radiation – would be taken up by life-forms living around Chernobyl, with the corresponding devastating effects on health. The radioactive elements would irradiate us from the inside out.
Scientists were therefore astonished in recent years to find flax plants growing inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The plants were flourishing. Wearing proper environmental suits, the scientists gathered seeds from the flax plants and hastily retreated, taking the seeds to a Ukranian laboratory for analysis. How were living things – plants – surviving, even flourishing, in such radioactive-ridden soil?
The answer was somewhat surprising. The seeds’ proteome had been damaged and changed, as would be expected due to the seed genomes’ exposure to high amounts of radiation. The proteome is the range of proteins that are produced by the plant genes. However, ignoring the damaged sections, the changed sections were all those which controlled cell signaling. This is the method by which cells communicate with each other. The scientists only conclusion was that somehow, via growing up in the midst of this horrifically contaminated area, the damage suffered by the flax plants had (by lucky happenstance) damaged the plant in a way that changed the way the plant cells communicate with each other. It was this mutation that somehow allowed the flax plants to flourish, while other species had long since withered and died.
The implications of this research are obvious. For all our medical knowledge, we have no treatment for advanced radiation poisoning; neither do biologists have any known methods to protect plant life from irradiation. Nuclear disasters are not a thing of the past; they could happen at any time. If the mystery of the Chernobyl flax plants could be fully unraveled, understood, and applied, it might usher in an age when a nuclear “disaster” would pose no more danger than any other large-scale industrial accident.
The sources of this article can be found at:
1. Jaffe, Bernard. “Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry From Ancient Alchemy To Nuclear Fission”.
2. Katarína Klubicová, Maksym Danchenko, Ludovit Skultety, Ján A. Miernyk, Namik M. Rashydov, Valentyna V. Berezhna, Anna Pret’ová, Martin Hajduch. “Proteomics Analysis of Flax Grown in Chernobyl Area Suggests Limited Effect of Contaminated Environment on Seed Proteome”. Environmental Science & Technology, 2010; 44 (18): 6940.