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Worms living near Chernobyl nuclear plant have evolved to develop a ‘super power’

Worms living near Chernobyl nuclear plant have evolved to develop a ‘super power’

The worms have developed immunity to radiation, a radical new study suggests.

Mutation in a species from radiation sounds like something out of a Fallout game.

But in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, scientists are researching this phenomenon in real-life with nematodes.

Nematodes are tiny worms with simple genetic structures.

They're found nearly everywhere on the planet and the vast majority of them are harmless.

A research team led by New York University published findings showing that nematodes in Chernobyl have developed unique traits due to the nuclear disaster in 1986.

Astonishingly, despite being exposed to chronic radiation since the catastrophic reactor meltdown, the nematodes’ genetic integrity has not been degraded or impacted.

Sophia Tintori
Sophia Tintori

This is pretty remarkable especially considering many species were completely wiped out by the disaster.

However, the radiation zone is still home to many animals nearly 40 years on.

The study involved collecting 20 genetically different worms from a variety of areas in the Exclusion Zone, linking them to the levels of radiation they had been exposed to.

'Did the sudden environmental shift select for species, or even individuals within a species, that are naturally more resistant to ionizing radiation?' Sophia Tintori, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biology at NYU and the first author of the study theorised.

The worms were examined at a field laboratory using multiple methods, including under the microscopic, and found no signs of radiation damage in their genomes.

Whilst intriguing, the study authors are keen to make sure their findings are misinterpreted.


'This doesn't mean that Chornobyl is safe - it more likely means that nematodes are really resilient animals and can withstand extreme conditions,' Tintori explained.

'We also don’t know how long each of the worms we collected was in the Zone, so we can't be sure exactly what level of exposure each worm and its ancestors received over the past four decades.'

Understanding how these simple organisms repair their genomes and DNA could help us to develop a similar level of understanding about our species, the authors noted.

'These worms live everywhere, and they live quickly, so they go through dozens of generations of evolution while a typical vertebrate is still putting on its shoes,' added Matthew Rockman, a biology professor at New York University.

He said the findings don't necessarily suggest that animals in Chernobyl have become more tolerant or evolved, but the discoveries could lead to a better understanding of natural variation and resilience.

Featured Image Credit: Sophia Tintori / MediaProduction/Getty