Can the Chernobyl dogs teach us new survival tricks?

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

Scientists hope that studying these dogs can also teach people new tricks on how to live in the harshest and most devastated environments.

They published Friday in the journal Science Advances the first of hopefully many genetic studies focused on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “restricted zone” around the disaster site. They identified populations whose different levels of radiation exposure may have genetically differentiated them from each other and from other dogs around the world.

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

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

The Chernobyl environment is uniquely brutal. On 04/26/1986 an explosion and fire at the Ukrainian power plant caused radioactive fallout to spew into the atmosphere. Thirty workers were killed immediately afterwards, while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning is estimated at thousands.

Researchers say most of the dogs they’re studying appear to be descendants of pets that residents had to abandon when they evacuated the area.

Mousseau has been working in the Chernobyl region 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 environment. Others are about 15 kilometers or 45 kilometers away.

At first, Ostrander said, they thought the dogs might have mixed up so much over time that they were pretty much the same. But through DNA, they were able to easily identify dogs living in areas of high, low, and moderate radiation exposure.

“That was a huge milestone for us,” said Ostrander. “And the amazing thing is that we can even identify families” – about 15 different ones.

Now researchers can start looking for changes in DNA.

“We can compare them and we can 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 involves separating non-consequential DNA changes from intended ones.

Scientists said the research could have widespread application, providing insights into how animals and humans may live now and in the future in regions of the world subject to “permanent environmental stresses” – and in the radiation-rich environment of space.

dr Kari Ekenstedt, a veterinarian who teaches at Purdue University and was not involved in the study, said this is a first step in answering important questions about how constant exposure to higher levels of radiation affects large mammals. For example, she said, “Will it change their genomes quickly?”

Researchers have already begun follow-up research, which means more time with the dogs at the site about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Kiev. Mousseau said he and his colleagues were last there last October and saw no war-related activity. Mousseau said the team got close to some dogs and named a prancer because she dances around excitedly when she sees people.

“Although they are wild, they still greatly enjoy human interaction,” he said, “especially when it comes to food.” ___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Can the Chernobyl dogs teach us new survival tricks?

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