Mutant wolves living in the human-free Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have developed cancer-resistant genomes, which could be the key to fighting the disease, a new study says.
The Wolves of Chernobyl have adapted to high levels of radiation PHOTO archive Adevărul
Wildlife has been able to adapt to and survive the high levels of radiation that hit the area after a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, in the world's worst nuclear accident.
People abandoned the area after the explosion released devastating nuclear radiation, and an area of more than 1,500 square kilometers was cordoned off to prevent human exposure.
But in the nearly 38 years since the nuclear disaster, nature has reclaimed the area, and wolf packs seem unaffected by chronic radiation exposure.
Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist and ecotoxicologist in Shane Campbell-Staton's lab at Princeton University, studied how mutant wolves evolved to survive the radioactive environment and presented the findings at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. last month, according to The New York Post.
The wolves were equipped with radiation dosimeters
In 2014, Love and her colleagues entered the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and fitted wild wolves with GPS collars equipped with radiation dosimeters.
They also collected blood from the animals to understand their reactions to cancer-causing radiation, according to a statement published by the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
With specialized collars, researchers can get real-time measurements of where the wolves are and what level of radiation they're exposed to, Love said.
Wolves were thus found to be exposed to 11.28 millirems of radiation daily over their lifetimes—more than six times the safe limit for humans.
The immune systems of Chernobyl wolves appeared different from those of ordinary wolves — similar to those of cancer patients undergoing radiation treatments, researchers found.
Love identified specific regions of the wolf's genome that appear to be resistant to increased cancer risk, the release states.
The research could be the key to examining how genetic mutations in humans could increase the chances of surviving cancer — reversing many of the known genetic mutations, such as BRCA, that cause cancer.
Chernobyl dogs—descendants of pets from the 1986 disaster—may also have a similar resistance to cancer, although they have not been studied to the same extent as wolves.
Dogs were in the area immediately after the disaster and adapted better than other species — such as birds, which suffered extreme genetic defects as a result of the radiation.
The findings are particularly valuable because, according to scientists, dogs fight cancer in a more similar way to humans, unlike laboratory mice.
Love's work has been stalled to some extent because she and her colleagues have been unable to return to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — first because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now because of the war in Ukraine.