Children Born to Chernobyl Survivors are Genetically Unaffected by the Disaster, Study Finds

A new study by an international team of scientists, published on 22 April in the journal Science, has found that, in terms of genetic mutations, children whose parents were exposed to harmful contaminants during the Chernobyl accident, which took place in Ukraine in 1986, are no different from the general population.

“[…] our study does not provide support for a transgenerational effect of ionizing radiation on germline DNA in humans,” wrote the researchers in their paper.

To date, the only research on the question of whether radiation-induced genetic changes can be passed from parent to offspring was conducted on animals – typically showing some effect – which doesn’t necessarily mean that humans were affected in the same way.

Children born to parents exposed to nuclear fallout in Ukraine have no more random mutations in their genetic make-up than the general population. Image: Marko Milivojevic via, CC0 Public Domain

In the study, researchers analysed the complete genomes of 130 adult children born between 1987 and 2002, as well as both of their parents, looking for de novo mutations, i.e., genetic changes that arise randomly in a person’s gametes (sperm and eggs).

The parents of the children were involved in clean up after the accident or had to evacuate because their homes were located in close proximity to the plant. This resulted in varying levels of exposure to ionising radiation and nuclear fallout (such as by consuming milk from cows that were also affected by the accident).

Luckily, upon examining the results, the researchers were able to conclude that none of the children had more de novo mutations than normal, regardless of the number of years between the accident and their birth.

This suggests that radiation had virtually no impact on the genetic health of the generation that was born after the disastrous events which took place in Ukraine in late April, 1986.

In addition to being of importance to a substantial part of Ukraine’s youth, the study also provides some peace of mind to other populations born after similar accidents, such as the one in Fukushima in 2011.

“We view these results as very reassuring for people who were living in Fukushima at the time of the accident in 2011,” said lead author Stephen Chanock.