Collaborative study puts Chernobyl hereditary mutation fears to rest

Cleanup workers and others exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 are unlikely to pass any genetic damage on to future generations, according to a new study.

“This is good news for the people of Eastern Europe,” said Frederick National Laboratory scientist Meredith Yeager, first author on the multi-institutional study led by Stephen Chanock of the National Cancer Institute and published May 14 in the journal Science.

No transgenerational effects of ionizing radiation were observed in adult children of Chernobyl clean-up workers and evacuees in the current study.

The research team conducted whole genome sequencing on samples from 130 children born between 1987 and 2002 to cleanup workers and evacuees from within 70 km of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. The analysis showed no increase in genetic mutation associated with radiation exposure from the accident.

“Some of these parents suffered ill effects from extremely high levels of radiation exposure,” Yeager said. “There were concerns that they might also have genetic damage that could be passed to their children and subsequent generations. This does not appear to be the case.”

The scientists examined random mutations (de novo mutations) in reproductive cells that can be passed on to offspring. About 50 to 100 de novo mutations normally occur per individual per generation. Some of these random mutations have been linked to disease.

The Chernobyl analysis looked for an increase in de novo mutations that might be attributed to radiation exposure, which at high doses can cause genetic damage.

"No transgenerational effects of ionizing radiation were observed in adult children of Chernobyl clean-up workers and evacuees in the current study,” the scientists reported. “If such effects on human germline DNA occur, they are uncommon or of small magnitude."

The Chernobyl disaster was a commercial nuclear accident with radiation-linked fatalities. The power plant explosion killed two plant workers, and 28 others died within a few weeks from acute radiation syndrome. About 5,000 people developed thyroid cancers and 15 died of the malignancies, according to the World Nuclear Association. About 350,000 people had to be evacuated from the affected area, which will be uninhabitable for thousands of years.

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