Lessons from the dogs of Chernobyl

Lessons from the dogs of Chernobyl

More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl’s dogs roam the decaying, abandoned buildings in and around the closed plant – somehow still able to feed, breed and survive.

Scientists hope that studying these dogs can teach humans new strategies on how to survive in the harshest, most degraded environments.

They published the first of what they hope will be many genetics studies Friday in the journal Science Advances, focusing on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. They identified populations whose varying degrees of radiation exposure made them genetically distinct from each other and from other dogs worldwide.

“We had this golden opportunity” to lay the groundwork to answer an important question: “How do you survive in such a hostile environment for 15 generations?” said Elaine Ostrander, a geneticist at the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the study’s many authors.

Co-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 setting” on mammals as a whole.

The environment at Chernobyl is singularly brutal. On April 26, 1986, Explosion and fire at Ukraine power plant Causes radioactive fallout in the atmosphere. Thirty workers were killed immediately while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning was eventually estimated in the thousands.

The researchers say most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of pets that residents were forced to leave behind when the area was evacuated.

Mousseau has been working in the Chernobyl region since the late 1990s and began collecting blood from dogs in 2017. Some dogs live in a power plant, a dystopian, industrial facility. Others are about 9 miles (15 km) or 28 miles (45 km) away.

At first, Ostrander said, they thought the dogs had interbred so much over time that they would be too similar. But with DNA, they can easily identify dogs living in areas of high, low and moderate radiation exposure.

“This was a huge milestone for us,” Ostrander said. “And what’s surprising is that we can also identify families” — about 15 different ones.

Now researchers can start looking for changes in DNA.

“We can compare them and we can say: OK, what’s different, what’s changed, what’s changed, what’s evolved, what helps you, what hurts you at the DNA level?” Dr. Ostrander. This involves distinguishing non-consequential DNA changes from purposeful changes.

Scientists say the research could have wide-ranging applications, under “constant environmental assault” — and provide insights into how animals and humans might survive now and in the future in the high-radiation environment of space.

Dr. Kari Ekenstedt, a veterinarian who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the research, said this is a first step toward answering important questions about how constant exposure to high levels of radiation affects large mammals. For example, he said, “Is it going to change their genomes at a faster rate?”

The researchers have already begun follow-up studies, which will mean spending more time with the dogs at the site, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Kiev. Musso said he and his colleagues were there last October and did not see any war-related activity. Mousseau said the group has grown close to some of the dogs, naming one Prancer because he walks around excitedly when he sees people.

“Even though they’re wild, they really enjoy human interaction,” she said, “especially when there’s food involved.” ___

The Associated Press receives support from the Science and Educational Media Group at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Health and Science. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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