The Geiger counter within us

HOW much damage does cosmic radiation do to frequent flyers? Is depleted uranium from shells causing cancers in former war zones such as Kosovo and Iraq? Is enough being done to protect people from natural radon gas? The discovery that certain kinds of radiation leave a distinctive pattern of damage in our cells could help answer these questions.

"If this works, we'll be able to take a measurement and see the lifetime exposure in that person," says David Brenner of Columbia University in New York. "Often there is no other reliable record of individual exposure." It is this uncertainty about radiation exposure that makes it hard to pin down the health risks.

"That they found this effect was there at all is significant," says Michael Cornforth, a radiation biologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. "But I was flabbergasted by how clear-cut it was."

Radiation is harmful because of its ionising effect, which can break DNA chains. If the broken pieces are rejoined incorrectly, the resulting genetic scrambling can harm cells or, far worse, set them on the road to cancer.

Some genetic damage is easy to spot, such as when parts of different chromosomes are exchanged - known as interchromosomal changes. But because mutagenic chemicals can also cause such exchanges, this is not a reliable indicator of exposure to radiation.

Researchers have long suspected that slow-moving, heavy particles such as alpha particles and neutrons should leave a characteristic pattern of damage. These kinds of radiation are known as "densely ionising" because they wreak havoc within a short tunnel; "sparsely ionising" X-rays or gamma rays spread their damage along a much longer path. Because the damage from densely ionising radiation is so concentrated, it is far more likely to hit one chromosome several times, triggering deletions or reordering of its DNA.

Detecting intrachromosomal changes like these has been extremely difficult till now. But B

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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