Stray dogs living in the toxic ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are suffering from genetic variation and irradiation, a new study has found. Depending on their proximity to the nuclear accident, the report showed that the canines exhibited varying degrees of irradiation, with those closest to Chernobyl 200 times more likely to bear traces of cesium-137, although this disparity did not preclude procreation between them.
Published in the journal Science Advances on March 3, the study began in 2017, investigating the healthiness of stray dogs that have been living and procreating in the CEZ since the disaster in April 1986.
After Chernobyl’s number 4 and 5 nuclear reactors exploded nearly 37 years ago, radioactive substances escaped, forcing authorities to cordon off the area and ask residents to leave.
Ten days after the explosion, the air in Europe and as far as the United States was still saturated with cesium-137, iodine-131 and other radionuclides spit out through the gaping maw of the exposed radioactive heart.
Although the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior gave the order shortly after to cull all stray or abandoned animals in order to avoid radioactive contamination, enough seem to have escaped the hunters to reconstitute numerous packs around and in Chernobyl.
The results of the first study into these stray dogs and their offspring have now been published.
The ecology of the region was obviously profoundly modified, causing the creation of a 2600 km squared exclusion zone around the disaster, but the findings showed that there were varying results of genetic variation within the CEZ.
The study found that the closer these dogs live to the former power plant, the more they bear traces of irradiation, such as deposits of cesium-137 – a toxic radioelement – in their organism.
The genetic study covers some 300 dogs divided into three groups: close to the plant, nine miles (15 km) from the plant, in the city of Chernobyl, and 28 miles (45 km) from the source of contamination.
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At first glance, the researchers found no physical deformities in the dogs living in the exclusion zone.
“Our next step is to study the genetic effects of exposure to ionizing radiation from Chernobyl on these animals,” explains Gabriella Spatola, of the American Institutes of Health (National Institutes of Health, NIH).
“We plan to examine the genomes of dogs in Chernobyl to explore what allowed them to survive in this harsh environment, whether it’s directly related to radiation or related to things like fertility, coat length, diet.”
Christophe Hitte, from the Dog Genetics team (IGDR, Rennes), added: “Now that they have perfectly described the areas of distribution dogs, the genetic structure of the different populations, this team has an adequate tool to go further and, for example , to analyze the effect of radiation on these populations over thirty years.
“What enabled these lines of dogs to resist it? Personally, I think that the genes involved in the repair of their DNA must have been more effective in a hostile situation than in an ordinary dog that will not have survived.”