Transgenerational accumulation of radiation damage in small mammals chronically exposed to Chernobyl fallout
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The purpose of this investigation has been the analysis of the long-term development of biological damage in natural populations of a model mammalian species, the bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus, Schreber), which were chronically exposed to low doses of ionizing radiation over 22 animal generations within 10 years following the Chernobyl accident. The time course of the biological end-points (chromosome aberrations in bone marrow cells and embryonic lethality) was compared with the time course of the whole-body absorbed dose rate from external and internal exposure in the studied populations inhabiting monitoring sites in Belarus with different ground deposition of radionuclides. The yield of chromosome aberrations and, in lesser degree, embryonic lethality was associated with the radionuclide contamination of the monitoring areas in a dose-dependent manner. As a main feature of the long-term development of biological damage under low dose rate irradiation, permanently elevated levels of chromosome aberrations and an increasing frequency of embryonic lethality have developed over 22 animal generations. This contrasts with the assumption that the biological damage would gradually disappear since in the same period of time the whole-body absorbed dose rate decreased exponentially with a half-value time of about 2.5–3 years. Furthermore, gravid females were captured, and their offspring, born and grown up under contamination-free laboratory conditions, showed the same enhanced level of chromosome aberrations. Therefore the authors suggest that, along with the biological damage attributable to the individual exposure of each animal, the observed cellular and systemic effects reflect the transgenerational transmission and accumulation, via genetic and/or epigenetic pathways, of damage attributable to the chronic low-dose rate exposure of the preceding generations of animals. They also suggest that the level of the accumulated transmissible damage in the investigated populations will decrease in future due to the further recession of the chronic exposure and as a consequence of selection processes.