How does Radiation Accelerate Evolution?

By: Kristina McEvoy, Eli Penza-Clyve, Amaya Toribio, and Lindsey Walsh (Stonehill College, BIO323: Evolution, Spring 2022)

Have you ever wondered how wildlife has been affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion? The disaster has been a subject of fascination to many, inspiring media such as the 2012 horror film Chernobyl Diaries and HBO’s 2019 television miniseries, Chernobyl. Although the incident occurred a little over 35 years ago, the accident has left lasting effects on the creatures that inhabit the Chernobyl area, particularly in the realm of genetic mutations.

Researchers at the University of Stirling, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute in Kyiv, sought to determine how radiation affected genetic diversity in a freshwater crustacean living in lakes at varying distances to the disaster. Daphnia pulex, also known as water fleas, live in the seven lakes examined in this study; five lakes were within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or the radioactive area surrounding the explosion site, and two were located outside this boundary. Water fleas are known to accumulate mutations and suffer from a reduced ability to survive and reproduce when exposed to radiation. Scientists investigated the variation between the water fleas at each location by extracting DNA and sequencing ten microsatellite gene locations on chromosomes. Essentially, microsatellites are short segments of repeated DNA motifs in many places within one’s genome. The variation in the length of these microsatellites can serve as a measure of genetic diversity. The radiation from Chernobyl can lead to the development of genetic mutations, which can, in turn, increase genetic diversity. However, this relationship can change drastically when taking other evolutionary factors into account. Considering the radioactive conditions, there are two possible outcomes: either mutations cause genetic diversity to increase, or natural selection eliminates individuals that cannot survive the cellular damage associated with radiation, thus decreasing genetic diversity.

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