Chernobyl's Radioactive Fallout Produces Tough, Post-Nuclear Soybeans

By Eliza Strickland | May 18, 2009 10:04 am

Chernobyl reactorTwenty-three years ago, Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor #4 exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident to date. Radioactive material was scattered across the surrounding countryside, and the authorities evacuated the nearby town of Pripyat, which remains a ghost town to this day. However, nature has not evacuated the scene, and all manner of plants and animals continue to inhabit the area. “There are no dogs with two heads,” says Martin Hajduch of the Slovak Academy of Sciences – although birds, insects and humans have all been affected to a greater or lesser extent by radioactive fallout [New Scientist].

Hajduch and his colleagues wanted to study how plants had adapted to the radioactive soil, so they grew a plot of soybeans just three miles from the remains of the nuclear power plant, well within the restricted zone that extends 19 miles from the reactors. They grew another patch of soybeans 60 miles from the power plant in uncontaminated soil, and analyzed the resulting beans. Their findings not only illuminate the hardiness of life, they also suggest ways to genetically engineer plants to make them resistant to radiation.

In the study, published in the Journal of Proteome Research, Hajduch found that the beans grown in radioactive soil weighed half as much as the normal beans, and also had molecular abnormalities. When compared with normal plants, beans from the high-radiation area had three times more cysteine synthase, a protein known to protect plants by binding heavy metals. They also had 32% more betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase, a compound found to reduce chromosomal abnormalities in human blood exposed to radiation…. The plants seem to be protecting themselves from Chernobyl’s low-level radiation, says Hajduch, but no one knows how these protein changes translate into survival, or if they’ll be passed on to the plants’ offspring [ScienceNOW Daily News].

By boosting levels of these proteins in other plants, scientists could theoretically engineer radiation-resistant plants, Hajduch says. While few farmers are eager to cultivate radioactive plots on Earth, future interplanetary travellers may need to grow crops to withstand space radiation [New Scientist]. If astronauts are growing soybeans on Mars one day, they may have these Chernobyl researchers to thank.

Related Content:
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Is Chernobyl Animal Dead Zone or Post-Apocalyptic Eden?
DISCOVER: The First Nuclear Refugees Come Home
DISCOVER: Chernobyl: A Biodiversity Hot Spot?
DISCOVER: Children of Chernobyl checks on the offspring of workers who mopped up the mess
DISCOVER: Ten Years After examines the health toll of Chernobyl

Image: flickr / Timm Suess

  • Michael Walsh

    Sorry, but Chernobyl did not explode. For someone doing cool extrapolations of science news stories, this seems an unexplainable error!

    Further, I don’t see any indication of the plants being scientifically studied. That is, is it possible that only 10% lived long enough to be studied, and the 10% remaining are merely the same 10% which always have these characteristics? Of course, such would be a perfect example of “survival of the fittest” and presumably next generations would show the same characteristics whether grown in radiation or not.
    Further still, if the plants already do “this” then why the need to genetically alter? This seems like a presumption, not a conclusion. If there *is* the effect indicated, then subsequent breeding in a radioactive environment is all that should be needed.

    One last little thing. This idea of space travelers needing to grow food. How far out into fantasy compared to the nitty-gritty of real-life radioactive pollution! I think it would have been better to note that there are people *living* within the Zone, that their poverty is so bad, they’ve gone home and live in the radiation, waiting to die, yes, but of old age, not radiation. Probably living in constant lowered resistance, etc, maybe usually sick, but at least, to them, they feel happy to have a home.

  • Martin Hajduch

    We are interested about those plants that survived, so we are not performing population studies of plants in Chernobyl area. The aim of this study is to unravel mechanisms how plants adapt to the conditions of permanently increased level of radiation. The aim is to follow the survivor plants through four generation.


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