More than 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the dogs of Chernobyl roam among decaying, abandoned buildings in and around the closed plant, somehow still able to find food, breed and survive.
Scientists hope that studying these dogs can teach humans new tricks about how to live in the harshest, most degraded environments, too.
They published the first of what they hope will be many genetics studies last Friday in the journal Science Advances, focusing on 302 free-roaming dogs living in an officially designated “exclusion zone” around the disaster site. They identified populations whose differing levels of radiation exposure may have made them genetically distinct from one another and other dogs worldwide.
“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?” said geneticist Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the study’s many authors.
Fellow author Tim Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said the dogs “provide an incredible tool to look at the impacts of this kind of a setting” on mammals overall.
On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at the Ukraine power plant caused radioactive fallout to spew into the atmosphere. Thirty workers were killed in the immediate aftermath, while the long-term death toll from radiation poisoning is estimated to eventually number in the thousands.
Researchers say most of the dogs they are studying appear to be descendants of pets that residents were forced to leave behind 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; others are miles away.
At first, Ostrander said, they thought the dogs might have intermingled so much over time that they’d be much the same. But through DNA, they could readily identify dogs living in areas of high, low and medium levels of radiation exposure.
“That was a huge milestone for us,” Ostrander said.
Scientists said the research could provide insights about how animals and humans can live in regions of the world under “continuous environmental assault” — and in the high-radiation environment of space.