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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 16:50 GMT
Nuclear fallout doubled DNA mutations
The mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb explosion
The mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb explosion
Exposure to radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests in the Soviet Union almost doubled the risk of inherited gene mutations in people living nearby, scientists have found.

The population around the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan was exposed to high levels of fresh radioactive fallout from four surface explosions between 1949 and 1956.

Blood DNA from three generations of families living near the Semipalatinsk site was compared with 20 families living in Taldy Kurgan, a rural district of Kazakhstan by an international team of researchers.

They looked at genetic mutations in the germline, which is the collection of genes parents pass on to their offspring.

Family history

The team found people exposed to fallout had an eight-fold increased risk of mutation in the inherited genes compared to the rural group.

This study does show that there is an effect on genetic mutation

Maj Hulten, University of Warwick:
Their children had a five-fold increased risk.

And the study showed there was a increased risk for children born to older parents, who had had higher exposure to the radioactive fallout.

Although the genetic mutations seen by the researchers did not have any physical manifestations, the team say the study does show the ability of high-strength radioactivity to affect DNA.

The scientists, writing in the journal Science, said the Moscow treaty in 1963 banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere had been "effective in reducing genetic risk to the affected population".

Test history

Maj Hulten, professor of medical genetics at the University of Warwick, who worked on the research, said: "This study does show that there is an effect on genetic mutation.

"It also would mean that in some other forms [radiation] could hit genes which have relevance for development."

She added that the genetic material which has been collected from the families provides a "biobank" which further research can be carried out on in the future.

William Morgan, director of the Radiation Oncology Research Laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore told Science the findings could contribute to the current debate about how people can be protected from chronic low-dose radiation.

See also:

08 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Chernobyl children show DNA changes
14 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
The legacy of Chernobyl
22 Apr 00 | Europe
Deadly toll of Chernobyl
30 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Throwing the DNA switch
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