Can Chernobyl dogs teach us new survival tricks?

This photo taken by Timothy Mousseau shows dogs in the Chernobyl area of ​​Ukraine on October 3, 2022. More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl dogs roam among abandoned buildings in and around the closed plant – somehow still able to find food, reproduce and survive.Credit: Timothy Mousseau via AP

More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl dogs roam abandoned buildings in and around the shuttered plant – somehow still able to find food, breed and survive.

Scientists hope that studying these dogs can teach humans new tricks on how to survive in the harshest, most degraded environments.

They published the first of what they hope will be many genetic studies Friday in the journal Science Advances, focusing on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. They identified populations whose different levels of radiation exposure may have made them genetically different from each other and from other dogs worldwide.

“We had this golden opportunity” to lay the groundwork to answer a critical question: “How do you survive in a hostile environment like this for 15 generations?” said geneticist Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of several authors of the study.

Co-author Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said dogs “provide an incredible tool to look at the effects of this kind of setting” on mammals as a whole.

The environment of Chernobyl is unusually brutal. On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at Ukraine’s power plant released radioactive material into the atmosphere. Thirty workers were killed in the immediate aftermath, with the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning ultimately estimated to be in the thousands.

The researchers say that most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of pets that residents were forced to leave behind when they evacuated the area.

Mousseau has been working in the Chernobyl area since the late 1990s and began collecting blood from the dogs around 2017. Some of the dogs live in the power plant, a dystopian, industrial setting. Others are about 9 miles (15 km) or 28 miles (45 km) away.

Surviving brutal places: Lessons from the dogs of Chernobyl

This photo provided by Timothy Mousseau in Feb. 2023 shows a dog in the area of ​​Chernobyl, Ukraine. More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl dogs roam abandoned buildings in and around the shuttered plant – somehow still able to find food, breed and survive. Credit: Jordan Lapier via AP

At first, Ostrander said, they thought the dogs might have mixed so much over time that they would be nearly the same. But through DNA, they could easily identify dogs living in areas with high, low and medium levels of radiation exposure.

“This was a huge milestone for us,” Ostrander said. “And what’s surprising is that we can even recognize families” — about 15 different ones.

Now researchers can start looking for changes in DNA.

“We can compare them and say, OK, what’s different, what’s changed, what’s mutated, what’s evolved, what’s helping you, what’s hurting you at the DNA level?” Ostrander said. This would include separating non-consequential changes in DNA from intentional ones.

The scientists said the research could have wide-ranging applications, providing insights into how animals and humans can live now and in the future in areas of the world under “constant environmental assault” – and in the high-radiation environment of space.

Dr. Kari Ekenstedt, a veterinarian who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the study, said it’s a first step toward answering important questions about how continued exposure to higher levels of radiation affects large mammals. For example, he said, “Will their genome change at a rapid rate?”

The researchers have already begun the follow-up survey, which will mean more time with the dogs at the site about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Kiev. Mousseau said he and his colleagues were there as recently as last October and saw no war-related activity. Mousseau said the group has approached a few dogs, naming one Prancer because she gets crazy excited when she sees people.

“Even though they’re wild, they still really enjoy human interaction,” he said, “Especially when there’s food.” ___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

More information:
Gabriella Spatola et al, The dogs of Chernobyl: demographic information on populations living in the nuclear exclusion zone, Advances in Science (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade2537.

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