Mutant wolves exposed to Chernobyl disaster have evolved a new superpower, scientists discover

Mutant wolves roaming the wasteland of Chernobyl have developed a new superpower that could have life-saving implications for humans. 

A team of researchers found the animals in the Chernobyl Evacuation Zone (CEZ) have genetically altered immune systems that show a resilience to cancer.

These findings gave researchers hope that the results can be used to find cures for human cancer patients.

Since the powerplant explosion in 1986, humans were evacuated from Chernobyl and the surrounding areas to avoid the extreme levels of radiation. 

The absence of humans allowed wildlife to flourish and thrive in the CEZ, which contains 11.28 millirem of radiation – six times the allowed exposure amount for human workers.

Wolves developed mutated genes from Chernobyl's high radiation levels, making them resilient to cancer

Wolves developed mutated genes from Chernobyl’s high radiation levels, making them resilient to cancer

Animals in Chernobyl have flourished and thrived despite radiation levels amounting to six times the legal exposure amount for human workers.

Animals in Chernobyl have flourished and thrived despite radiation levels amounting to six times the legal exposure amount for human workers.

Grizzly bears and bison stroll among the trees, lynx and fox slink through the long grass. 

Beavers, boar, elk, deer, raccoons and more than 200 species of bird call the area home. 

In 2014, Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, set out with a team of researchers to understand how animals have been able to survive the cancer-causing radiation.

Love and her team took blood samples from the wolves and placed GPS collars with radiation dosimeters on them to get real-time measurements of where they were and their radiation exposure levels.

‘We get real-time measurements of where they are and how much [radiation] they are exposed to,’ said Love.

The researchers examined the genetic differences between the DNA of mutated wolves in the 1,000-square-mile radius of the CEZ and those outside it.

The results showed that, despite receiving potentially deadly daily radiation doses, the wolves appeared remarkably resilient against its effects. 

Analysis showed that a number of their genes which are linked to cancer had new  mutations to them, suggesting they had evolved to protect against the radiation.

It is hoped that the discovery could pave the way for experts to identify mutations in humans that reduce the risk of cancer.

The new research was presented last month at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology’s Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. 

Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, set out with a team of researchers to understand how animals have been able to survive the cancer-causing radiation

Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, set out with a team of researchers to understand how animals have been able to survive the cancer-causing radiation

Researchers looked at a 1,000-square-mile radius of the CEZ to study wolves' mutations and hope it can lead to curing human cancer

Researchers looked at a 1,000-square-mile radius of the CEZ to study wolves’ mutations and hope it can lead to curing human cancer

Love said that due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing war in Ukraine, she and her team haven’t been able to continue their research but hope in the long-term that the mutated wolves can help uncover ways to cure cancer in human patients. 

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear powerplant factory in  Ukraine caught fire and exploded, releasing cancer-causing radiation and debris into the air – marking the worst nuclear accident in history.

The explosion occurred during a routine maintenance check when operators turned off vital control systems to test the electrical systems, which was against safety regulations.

The explosion killed 30 workers and an additional 50 deaths were reported in the following months due to radiation poisoning caused.

In the aftermath of the explosion, more than 150,000 people were evacuated from their homes, including those from the nearby town of Pripyat.

The mass exodus from the region resulted in a barren wasteland that 50 years later, is still too toxic for human survival.

The United Nations (UN) predicted in 2005 that an additional 4,000 people were likely to die from their exposure to radiation in the aftermath of the powerplant explosion.

Chernobyl's power plant exploded in 1986, making the area nothing more than a barren wasteland

Chernobyl’s power plant exploded in 1986, making the area nothing more than a barren wasteland

30 workers were killed when the Chernobyl powerplant exploded on April 26, 1986

30 workers were killed when the Chernobyl powerplant exploded on April 26, 1986

For years, researchers have visited the CEZ to understand how animals have been able to thrive.

Wildlife like horses, lynx, elk, wolves, and dogs believed to be descendants of pets left behind when residents fled Chernobyl have recolonized the area and developed varying mutations over the last 50 years.

Researchers found mutated tree frogs which normally have green pigmentation were dark or black and rare wild horses called Przewalski have doubled in population size since 36 were introduced to the area in 2002 to increase biodiversity.

Tree frogs typically have a green pigmentation but researchers discovered the species in the CEZ was genetically altered to be dark or black

Tree frogs typically have a green pigmentation but researchers discovered the species in the CEZ was genetically altered to be dark or black

Wild dogs were also found to have mutated genes compared to dogs living outside the CEZ region, but scientists need to conduct more research to understand the main genealogical differences.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina and the National Human Genome Research Institute said the populations could increase ‘understanding [of] the biological underpinnings of animals and, ultimately, human survival in regions of high and continuous environmental assault.’

Geneticist and study author Dr Elaine Ostrander said: ‘We’ve had this golden opportunity’ to lay the groundwork for answering a crucial question: ‘How do you survive in a hostile environment like this for 15 generations?”

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