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A new study published today in Science finds that children whose parents were exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 had no more germline mutations than the general population.
Effects of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which occurred at a power plant in Ukraine in April 1986, remain a topic of interest. The Chernobyl accident exposed millions of people in the surrounding region to radioactive contaminants.
The study investigated the long-standing question of whether radiation exposure results in genetic changes that can be passed from parent to offspring.
This effect has been suggested by some studies in animals. But to date, no major study has examined germline mutations in children born to parents exposed to high amounts of radiation.
“This is one of the first studies to systematically evaluate alterations in human mutation rates in response to a man-made disaster, such as accidental radiation exposure,” say the authors.
To answer this question, the authors analyzed the complete genomes of 130 children and their 105 mother-father pairs. The children were born between 1987 and 2002.
One or both of the parents had either helped to clean up the accident site, or had to evacuate because they lived close by.
The researchers evaluated each parent for protracted exposure to ionizing radiation. Such exposure might have occurred, for example, by consuming milk from cows that had been contaminated by radioactive fallout. The parents included in the study experienced a wide range of radiation doses.
The researchers analyzed the genomes of adult children for an increase in a particular type of inherited genetic change. Scientists call these changes de novo mutations. These are genetic changes that arise randomly in a person’s gametes (sperm and eggs). They can be transmitted to offspring, but are not present in the parents.
For the range of radiation exposures experienced by the parents in the study, there was no evidence of an increase in de novo mutations in their children. The children were all were born from one to fifteen years after the accident.
In fact, the number of de novo mutations in these children was similar to those in the general population.
These findings suggest that the ionizing radiation exposure from the accident had a minimal, if any, impact on the health of the subsequent generation.
Studies like this are important. They help shed light on possible genetic effects among the children of other radiation-exposed populations. A prominent example is the Fukushima disaster from 2011.
“We view these results as very reassuring for people who were living in Fukushima at the time of the accident in 2011,” said lead author Stephen Chanock.