About four decades ago, the world's greatest nuclear disaster converted the Ukrainian city of Pripyat and its surrounding power station, Chornobyl, into a radioactive hot zone - and, amazingly, a haven for wildlife decades later.
Wolves, wild horses, birds, bison, elk, frogs, and dogs roam the deteriorating concrete structures and surrounding woodlands of what has become Europe's largest natural reserve effectively. Plants grew where humans fled.
An international team of researchers conducted a new genetic analysis on the region's canine clans, which could give a foundation for learning how the contamination dusting the landscape may have altered their DNA over generations.
Scientists have long been curious in the consequences of decades of low-dose radiation exposure on the area's animals.
DNA discovered from feral dogs living near the power plant indicates that they are the ancestors of dogs who were either present at the time of the disaster or arrived shortly afterward. This is the first genetic study of a large mammal in the Chornobyl area.
The study, which was published on March 3 in Science Advances, is the first step in a larger project to understand how canines have adapted to flourish in one of the world's most radioactive environments. The discoveries should aid scientists in better understanding the effects of long-term radiation exposure on human DNA and health.
Timothy Mousseau, a co-author and evolutionary ecologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, took part in a volunteer mission in 2017 to provide veterinary care to hundreds of stray dogs living in the exclusion zone, a 2,600-square-kilometer area around the power plant that Ukrainian officials restrict entry to for safety reasons.
Mousseau and his colleagues collected blood samples from approximately 300 canines living at the power plant and in the area surrounding the mostly deserted city of Chornobyl over the course of three years of visits to the area after volunteers tranquilized the animals with tranquilizer darts.
However, the study's findings revealed that most dogs were actually from the Chornobyl power plant, implying that either the soldiers performed a terrible job or the dogs were very skilled at concealing. Dogs living just a few kilometers distant had DNA that differed considerably from those from Chornobyl.
The tricky element for scientists is determining which genetic alterations were induced by radiation and which by other reasons, such as inbreeding.
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