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Chernobyl’s Mutated Species May Help Protect Astronauts via National Geographic

Some species in the radioactive site show resistances to radiation—and their genetic protections may one day be applied to humans.

On the big screen, astronauts face many dangers, from explosions, to suffocating in the vacuum of space, to maniacal red-eyed sentient computers. But perhaps the deadliest threat to real astronauts is one they can’t even see: radiation.


One place on Earth may offer a unique opportunity to study the long-term effects of radiation exposure and perhaps find a way to better protect from it: Chernobyl.

“The secret to potential success for interstellar travel will come from looking at animals and plants and microbes on the Earth that have dealt with this kind of radiation in their evolutionary past, and their ability to either tolerate or completely avoid effects of this radiation,” says Timothy Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.


Mousseau has visited the site regularly since 2000, looking at hundreds of species to see how they react to the environment. Some, like the radiantly red firebug, mutate aesthetically, their normally symmetrical designs warped and fractured. Others, including certain species of birds and bacteria, have shown an increased tolerance and resistance to the radiation.

These differences may offer clues to help with human spaceflight. (Archaeologists are also studying Chernobyl—here’s why.)

“I think that within human genomes, there are secrets to biological mechanisms for resisting or tolerating the effects of radiation,” Mousseau says. “The trick is to figure out what those mechanisms are, and to maybe turn them on or enhance them in some way.”

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