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Aftonbladet and chernobyl

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that a woman called Natalia Kazmierska has seen fit to comment on the Chernobyl event recently. This has made me think about the way in which the general public think about radiation biology.

I doubt if I will be attending a showing of the film “The Chernobyl Diaries”. Frankly I have better things to do  and I think that watching 28 days later gave me all the frights about zombies that I need for the next decade or so. I would like to point out that regarding radiation it is a case that what “everyone knows” is not right. While the general public expect a large number of mutant babies and deformed wildlife (overgrown rats, dogs with snake heads, snakes with dog’s bodies and what ever else you can imagine), I have to disappoint many people and point out that many of these wild (and far fetched mutants) are impossible.

In an adult mammal (and almost all other warm blooded animals) the cells are already differentiated and it is impossible to change an organ by altering a cell as

1. The organ has many cells

2. It is impossible to change the DNA of all the cells in the organ in the same way using radiation.

If we consider the eye as an example, somewhere in your genome is a genetic code which determines your eye colour. If you want to change your eye colour (and you do not want to use fancy contact lenses) then you would need to change the DNA in all the cells which are currently part of the section of the eye which gives the iris its colour. This is a very tall order which I think is currently impossible.

When you were an unborn baby at an early stage there would have been one eye which would have been destined to become your eye, if you had altered the DNA of this cell then you could alter the eye colour. But unless you also changed the cell which was destined to become your naughty bits (opps I mean reproductive organs) then this mutation can not be passed onto the next generation. So it is not possible to mutate adult humans or even human babies (for the purpose of this bit of biology they already have their organs locked in this way).

I know that newspapers would love to be able to report a “real life mutant associate prof who marks his students work using psychic powers to read student’s minds before writing the results down using a biro held using his tentacles”, but I have to tell you that such a story is totally impossible. If you want to print such a thing then I think other than vanity publication or writing in a novel/comic book your only chance would be to write it for the “Sunday sport“. For those of my readers who do not know, the Sunday sport is a comic like news paper which is packed with wild tales about sexual matters, sport, showbiz gossip and plainly silly things such as world war two bomber found on moon, aliens going on drinking binge in a UK pub and a monkey landing an airplane.

I think that the main reason why radiation is so bad at mutating humans (and most animals) is that the likelihood on inducing a mutation in the reproductive organs which can be passed onto your children is only 1 % per sievert (Sv). It is important to distinguish between a mutation which can be passed onto your children and the case of a child which does not develop normally due to irradiation in utero. Most of the horror pictures which people may have shown you are likely to be either fetuses which were deformed for some reason which is unrelated to radiation or a child which developed in an abnormal way due to the action of some agent such as (alcohol or radiation) on the unborn child.

It is important to bear in mind that the chance of inducing cancer in a human (typical adult over 16 or 18) is also low, it is widely accepted as being at 5 % per sievert, as a dose of about 4 sievert delivered over a short time is likely to send a person to the other side (assuming no specialist medical care) it is very hard to mutate a person’s gametes to enable them to have abnormal children let alone children with superpowers.

For example if we consider the associate prof with two superpowers (mind reading) and the tentacles which he can write with then it should be clear to most of my readers that such differences are a long way removed from what is the norm. I imagine that to get either of these “superpowers” would require a long series of mutations, this long series of mutations would require a large number of genetic changes to occur which are very unlikely to occur in the lifetime of one human. A typical mutation which could occur in a human would be a change in a gene which stops a person making a protein or some other biomolecule which is needed for normal life, this would include hemophilia appearing in a family which never had it before.

An alternative would be for the genetic code for the mutant prof to already be common in the human genome but to have a single gene which switches off this weird stuff. We can quickly discount this as if this was the case then every now and then we would see a person born who could read minds and had the extra limbs. As I have never heard of such a human then either the authorities are doing a good job of hushing it all up or more likely it has never occurred. I hold the view that it is very hard to keep something wild and exciting secret for a long time, a secrete organisation is only as strong as the weakest member so it is likely that a secret organisation will within decades become a publicly known one.

So I think we can discount the likelihood of an associate prof who mind reads and can write using extra organs appearing by mutating a “normal” human.

I would like to point out that the nuclear industry is one of the few which has worked out a method for isolating the worst forms of its waste from humans / the environment until it is no longer a threat. Wastes from other sectors will stay nasty and horrible forever. For example asbestos waste will remain hazardous forever and so will heavy metal waste from electrical batteries (NiCd cells). I would like to suggest that Natalia that she should consider this issue.

I would also like to point out that the worst accidents I can think of in the energy sector have been outside the nuclear industry, for example back in the 1960s a spoil heap at a Welsh coal mine slide down a hill and killed almost every last child in a primary school (Aberfan). If society or Natalia wants to have a debate on the safety of the nuclear sector that is fine by me, but we need to consider the whole of the energy sector rather than cherry picking the parts we want to discuss or be opposed to. I will be blogging on this in greater detail in the near future.


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