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In Russia, Weapons Workers Have Mark of Plutonium
By Kate Dalke

During the Cold War, workers at a nuclear reactor facility and plutonium bomb plant near the small town of Ozyorsk, Russia, were exposed to radiation.

Normal chromosome (left) showing areas that are inverted in the damaged chromosome (right).

Today, some of those workers carry the signature of plutonium on their genomes, a new study has found. Though the workers are healthy, half their cells have abnormalities, including rearranged or missing DNA.

The permanent impact of plutonium radiation on the workers has long been suspected, and the effects can now be seen. Using a new imaging technique, researchers have detected changes to the chromosomes of these workers.

Plutonium causes changes within individual chromosomes, and the new technology reveals these intra-chromosomal changes. By contrast, X-rays and toxic chemicals tend to cause DNA to move from one chromosome to another.

The study included 31 former employees of the Mayak Production Association who had been exposed to different levels of radiation from the plutonium plant and nuclear facility.

The scientists first documented changes to chromosome 5, and then estimated that over 60 percent of cells in highly exposed plutonium workers would contain aberrations.

The health effects of these changes are not yet known. But the team of American and Russian researchers was surprised by how many were present in the healthy workers.

“These aberrations, which we couldn’t measure before, are showing up at a much higher frequency than we expected,” says David J. Brenner of Columbia University in New York City, who led the study.

Brenner is now using the chromosomal imaging technique to measure the past exposure to densely ionizing radiation among airline pilots. In a study funded by the US National Cancer Institute, he will investigate the impact on the genome of traveling in the upper atmosphere.

Aberrations on chromosome 5 detected using the chromosome painting technique called mBAND. View full

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Hande, M. P. et al. Past exposure to densely ionizing radiation leaves a unique permanent signature in the genome. Am J Hum Genet 72, 1162-1170 (May 2003).

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