The wolves living in the heart of Chernobyl appear to have developed the ability to fight cancer, a genetic mutation that could give humans a better chance of surviving the disease.
In 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The disaster released carcinogenic radiation and irradiated waste into the environment, resulting in the world's worst nuclear accident.
The radiation spread throughout Europe, reaching the Lake District in northern England.
More than 150,000 people were evacuated from the area, including the nearby city of Pripyat, which was built to serve the plant and is home to many workers.
In the nearly four decades since then, only about 1,000 people have returned to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (ZEC). This undisturbed peace and quiet has allowed wildlife to thrive among the abandoned buildings and surrounding forests as nature slowly reclaims the barren landscape.
Brown bears and bison wander among the trees, while lynxes and foxes scurry through the tall grass. Beavers, wild boars, moose, deer, raccoons and more than 200 species of birds live in this area.
The rare Przewalski horses were introduced to the area in 1998 as part of efforts to save the breed. But to survive, everyone has to deal with radiation.
In 2014, evolutionary biologist and environmental toxicologist Dr. Kara Love and her colleagues visited the exclusion zone to better understand the status of gray wolves in the area and found that they were thriving.
The team fitted several individuals with radio collars and took blood samples to help figure out how they responded to generations of exposure to cancer-causing radiation. The collar counters also sent real-time measurements of where the wolves were and how much radiation they were exposed to.
The results showed that despite receiving daily doses of radiation nearly six times the safe legal limit for humans, wolves appeared remarkably resistant to its effects.
The analysis revealed that wolves inside the exclusion zone have a significantly altered immune system compared to wolves outside it.
Love and his team found specific regions in wolf genes that appear to be resistant to increased cancer risk, which is exactly the opposite of what happens in humans, where a series of genetic mutations make individuals more susceptible to the disease, such as the BRCA and mammary genes. cancer.
The hope is that by isolating these genetic mutations, scientists can identify mutations in humans that increase the odds of surviving cancer.
However, while the war in Ukraine continues, the team cannot return to conduct further research. “Our priority is to keep people and collaborators as safe as possible,” Dr. Love said.
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