Chernobyl's mutant wolves have developed resistance to cancer

Decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned the area into an irradiated ghost town, the wildlife that now roams the abandoned landscape faces a new threat: cancer. However, new research suggests that the wolves of Chernobyl have evolved an incredible resistance to the disease.

In April 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, spewing massive amounts of radioactive material into the air in what remains the worst nuclear accident in history. The catastrophe forced over 100,000 people to evacuate from the city of Pripyat and its surrounds, leaving homes, schools and workplaces to crumble and decay.

The area - known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) - became blanketed in cancer-causing radiation. To this day, more than 1000 square miles of terrain in northern Ukraine and southern Belarus remains too hazardous for human habitation.

Wildlife Adapts to Survive in Contaminated Landscape

But Chernobyl's wild inhabitants faced a choice: adapt to the radiation or perish. Now, almost 40 years on, populations of wolves, horses and other wildlife appear to be thriving in numbers not seen for centuries.

Wolf in Chernobyl

Intrigued by how Chernobyl's new predator kings have survived and evolved, Cara Love - an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University - ventured into the CEZ in 2014. Love's team tracked and took blood samples from a number of wolves, monitoring their movements via radio collars.

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

Evidence Emerges of Cancer Resistance

The results were remarkable. Love discovered that Chernobyl wolves absorb around 11.28 millirem of radiation each day; over six times the safe limit for the average human. Yet rather than succumb to radiation sickness, the wolves revealed altered immune systems similar to cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment.

Incredibly, Love also pinpointed chunks of genetic code in the wolves that seem especially resistant to heightened cancer risk. The findings build on a growing body of research showing how species dynamically adapt to environmental pressures, including at the genetic level.

Modified DNA for cancer resistance

For instance, recent studies demonstrated that Chernobyl trees mature far faster than normal, while the area's red deer and barn swallows boast altered stress responses. Last year, genetic testing also revealed Chernobyl's feral dogs differ markedly from domesticated breeds elsewhere.

But the wolves' apparent ability to resist cancer has captivated scientists. Love now hopes to identify the precise mutations that protect the wolves, knowledge that could inform humanity's own cancer treatments.

"We're studying nature's solutions for surviving–and thriving–when exposed to chronic, low-dose ionizing radiation," Love said. "The Exclusion Zone offers a unique system to look at evolutionary adaptation in real time."

Biologist Timothy Mousseau has been studying the effects of lasting radiation on the flora and fauna of Chernobyl, and did a fascinating 5-minute documentary with the New York Times on the topic.

Unfortunately, Prof. Cara Love's pioneering research recently hit an unwelcome roadblock. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented further trips to monitor the test subjects, while Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February has indefinitely halted the ground-breaking study. Yet Love remains committed to uncovering Chernobyl's secrets once the region stabilizes.

Thirty-seven years since the Chernobyl catastrophe, wildlife continues to inherit the long-term genetic legacy of nuclear fallout. But amidst the ghost city ruins and radiation hotspots, evolution marches on, pushing species like the grey wolf to extraordinary adaption. The Exclusion Zone has become an unintentional living laboratory, where the subjects run themselves.

Potential Applications to Human Health

Most exciting is what this research could mean for humanity. If scientists can identify the precise genetic mechanisms behind the wolves' cancer resistance, similar mutations could potentially be replicated to protect humans from the disease.

Hope and recover from cancer

If we can understand exactly how the wolves of Chernobyl are able to resist the damaging effects of radiation, that knowledge could help us develop new cancer therapies that leverages the body's intrinsic defense abilities. Learning how wildlife thrives in extreme environments often teaches us amazing lessons applicable to human health and medicine.

Though trips may be on hold for now, Love remains driven to uncover Chernobyl's secrets in service of that goal. Just as the Exclusion Zone's wildlife adapted in ways never thought possible, this research represents adaptability and ingenuity on the part of human scientific ambition. After all that radiation has wrought on Chernobyl's environment and inhabitants, the disaster site could yet foster medical breakthroughs that save human lives for generations to come. The potential promise emerging from the ghostly Exclusion landscape is as inspiring as it is astonishing.

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