An interesting open access, peer-reviewed study was published earlier this year in Frontiers in Microbiology that examined how lower than background doses of ionizing radiation affected the growth of bacteria. This post is part of an ongoing series dedicated to communicating scientifically derived information related to the impacts of ionizing radiation in the environment largely in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdowns in 2011. Life emerged on our planet billions of years ago when levels of environmental radioactivity were about 5-fold higher than they are today. On average living organisms experience a background ionizing radiation dose of ~1-2 milliSievert (mSv) although there is significant geographical variation across the globe given local geology (radioisotope content of rocks and minerals) and altitude (exposure to cosmic radiation). Deviations from background occur due to proximity to medical exposure or nuclear energy or weapon related events that only act to increase the dose livings things must tolerate. Castillo and Smith (2017) conducted experiments to understand how bacteria responded when they were grown in lower than background ionizing radiation dose conditions. How did they do this and what did they find?
How exactly do you get lower than background ionizing radiation dose conditions for an experiment? Castillo and Smith were given access to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, NM which you may be aware of given an accidental release of artificial radionuclides that occurred there in 2014. The low background radiation experiment (LBRE) used the geological conditions at WIPP, radiation shielding and radiation sources to test how lower than background ionizing radiation doses affected the growth and gene expression of radiation tolerant bacteria Shewanella oneidensis and Deinococcus radiodurans. The LBRE laboratory is located at a depth of 660 m (~1/3rd of mile) inside a 610 m thick salt deposit that is naturally low in naturally occurring radioisotopes and emits significantly less radiation than other rock formations. To further lower ionizing radiation exposure experiments can be conducted in a 15 cm-thick vault made from pre-World War II (and therefore not exposed to nuclear weapons testing artificial radionuclides), low-activity steel.
Castillo and Smith incubated cells inside the vault to achieve lower than background doses of ionizing radiation (WIPP formation + metal shielding) and control cells grown in the presence of 11.5 kg of a potassium-rich salt (KCl) to generate an energy field of gamma radiation close to aboveground background levels. The WIPP facility, local geology and experimental setup with radiation doses experienced by the bacteria are shown in the figure below.
Cells were grown in the presence of lower than and at natural background radiation doses and their growth and gene expression measured.
What did they find?
The two organisms responded differently to the radiation treatments. S. oneidensis cultures did not show a significant difference in growth in response to the reduced radiation dose while D. radiodurans growth was inhibited at the beginning of its exponential growth phase and remained significantly lower than the control with normal background radiation levels. When D. radiodurans was taken from lower than normal radiation and returned to normal background ionizing radiation doses its growth returned to normal again.
So D. radiodurans was not able to grow as fast in low radiation conditions while S. oneidensis grew equally well at lower than background and background levels of ionizing radiation. The authors found that gene expression between the two species was significantly different as well. During mid-exponential phase (8 h in S. oneidensis), six genes related to oxidative stress response, DNA repai, protein folding, and a putative efflux pump that pushes metals out of the cells were turned on (blue bars in graph above). Poor growth under low radiation for D. radiodurans became clear (p < 0.05) at 34 h . The difference in gene expression for D. radiodurans was that genes related to DNA repair and protein folding activities were turned on, while genes necessary for dealing with oxidative stress and energy production were turned off. The regulation of these genes by D. radiodurans was reversed when the cells were returned to normal levels of radiation suggesting that difference was driven by the reduced amount of ionizing radiation they were exposed to in the lower than normal treatment.
What is the explanation and what does this mean?
The authors thought that S. oneidensis responded to the lack of ionizing radiation as an environmental stress and mounted a classic stress-response to the reduction of natural levels of environmental radiation allowing it to grow at its maximum rate. In contrast, D. radiodurans did not sense this stress, did not mount a stress response, and was therefore limited in its ability to grow (was less fit). Specifically, under radiation-reduced conditions, S. oneidensis increased its ability to deal with oxidative damage, repair DNA damage, and repair damaged proteins, which allowed it to continue to grow normally. In the case of D. radiodurans, it did not respond by expressing enough of these critical genes and suffered as a consequence. The authors are continuing their work to test:
why radiation deprivation may increase oxidative stress and levels of reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical and superoxide) inside the cells.
whether or not the ability to sense and respond to the absence of normal levels of radiation is a trait that both prokaryotic (bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotic (e.g. plants and animals) possess.
This study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that suggest that some level of ionizing radiation may be required for cells to appropriately regulate their internal function and be maximally fit.
Did you enjoy your trip? If you were alive during the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, you received an extra dose of radiation equal to that received on a roundtrip flight from Vancouver to Tokyo. This is the result according to research presented by Nikolaos Evangeliou of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research at the annual meeting of the European Geophysical Union earlier this year.
The purpose of this short post is to compare the relative amounts of radioactive plutonium released to our environment from the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970 and the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster that began in March 2011. Apollo 13 was the third mission planned to bring American astronauts to land on the moon and conduct scientific studies there. On April 11 1970 the Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts James Lovell (Commander), Fred Haise (Lunar Module Pilot) and Jack Swigert (Command Module Pilot) was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
What followed was a technical problem solving masterpiece to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth with limited power and life support systems. The rescue of Lovell, Haise and Swigert has been characterized as a “successful failure” and NASA’s finest hour.
Plutonium in the Environment from Apollo 13
A consequence of not having landed on the moon was that the descent stage of the Lunar Module (LM; which would normally have brought Lovell and Haise down to the surface and been left behind when they returned) was now being brought back to Earth. The power and life support afforded by the LM was central to the successful rescue of the crew. What is significant about this is that the power supply attached to the descent stage of the LM to be left on the lunar surface to provide electric power for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEP) was a SNAP-27 Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) containing 1,650 TBq (TBq = 1012Becquerel) or roughly 3.9 kilograms of plutonium oxide fuel. While the RTG was essential to bring astronauts home safely the high velocity reentry of the LM raised the possibility of contaminating the atmosphere and surface Earth with worrying amounts of Pu. To avoid the possibility of the RTG coming down in a populated area the flight engineers had the LM enter the Earth’s atmosphere such that the RTG would be deposited in the remote Pacific Ocean near the Tonga Trench where water depth is about 6-9 kilometers. Measurements in the atmosphere and ocean following the reentry of the LM suggested that the RTG had survived intact and little of the Pu was broadcast in the environment. Tests of the RTG casing suggest that this 3.9 kg of Pu, somewhere on the seafloor of the Pacific, will not be mobilized for another ~800 years. https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FFlightOfApollo%2Fposts%2F1121563224620322%3A0&width=500