WILD wolves who roam the nuclear wasteland near Chernobyl have developed a ‘superpower’ following prolonged exposure to radiation.
Researchers are hoping their discovery of the exceptional genetic mutation could give humans a better chance at surviving cancer.
The mutant wolves appear to have developed cancer-resilient genomes – which have proved helpful in surviving the high levels of radiation that have plagued the human-free Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since the city’splant infamously exploded in 1986.
Humans inhabiting the area and the nearby town of Pripyat, built to serve the plant and house workers, fled the area upon finding the explosion had resulted in the spread of cancer-causing radiation.
A 1,000-square-mile zone was cordoned off to prevent harmful exposure to people, and only about 1,000 residents have returned to the exclusion zone in the nearly four decades since they left.
But plants and animals – including packs of wolves, as well as grizzly bears, bison, and elk – have reclaimed the site of the nuclear disaster, some of which seem unaffected by the high levels of radiation.
New research shows that wolves living in the exclusion zone are genetically different to those living outside of the region.
Evolutionary biologist Cara Love has tracked the wolves’ adaptation since 2014, when she visited the exclusion zone with her colleagues and placed GPS collars equipped with radiation dosimeters around the necks of the wild wolves.
The group also took blood from the animals to help them understand their responses to the cancer-causing radiation.
Ms Love said the specialised collars allowed her team of researchers to measure, in real time, where and how much radiation the wolves are exposed to.
They came to the conclusion the wolves are exposed to about 11.28 millirem per day – more than six times the legal limit safe for humans.
Specific regions in the wolves’ genes appeared resilient to increased cancer risk, unlike in humans where a number of mutations – including BRCA – make individuals more susceptible to the disease.
Ms Love and her team also discovered that the mutant wolves’ immune systems are different to that of other wolves, and similar to those of cancer patients going through radiation treatment.
She said she hopes their findings can be used to identify protective mutations that increase humans’ odds of surviving cancer, as canines fight off cancer more similarly to the way humans do than lab rats.
It has been said the descendants of former Chernobyl residents’ pets such as dogs could possess similar cancer-resilient genomes, but they are yet to be studied to the same extent as the wolves.
Chernobyl dogs have been in the area since immediately after the disaster, so have likely adapted better than other species.
Birds – of which 200 species call Chernobyl home – among other animals appear to have experienced extreme genetic defects as a result of the radiation.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and now the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, has temporarily brought Ms Love’s work to a halt.
But the groundbreaking findings are expected to continue when her team is eventually able to return to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.