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Chernobyl offers unique opportunity to study evolution

Dr Louise Johnson

Dr Louise Johnson

'Extreme events like Chernobyl provide opportunities to test predictions about evolution.' Dr Louise Johnson

Dr Louise Johnson, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Reading was asked to comment on research findings by scientists studying the effects of radiation on various species in Chernobyl.

Scientists have found a way to predict which species in Chernobyl are likely to be most severely damaged by radioactive contamination. The secret to a species' vulnerability lies in its DNA according to Professor Tim Mousseau, University of South Carolina.

Professor Mousseau said that the Chernobyl setting offered a "unique opportunity to look at a natural experiment in progress - [to see] what happens to species when they have this kind of environmental disturbance. Migrating birds have been particularly badly affected by the contamination."

One explanation may be that these species have, for whatever reason, less capable DNA repair mechanisms.

Reading's Dr Johnson said the findings were "Fascinating. Extreme events like Chernobyl provide opportunities to test predictions about evolution," she told BBC News.

"One of the difficulties of such research is that it isn't really an experiment- it is impossible to control for all of the confounding variables.

"But [the scientists] have been very careful to test all of the other factors that could be important - antioxidants, population size, body size, etc. of bird species and it appears... that there is a shared causal relationship between accumulating mutations over time and the ability to withstand radiation."

Brightly coloured birds and birds that have a long distance migration were some of the organisms most likely to be affected by contaminants.

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