Metaphysicians and New Age aficionados have long since given a positive spin to the most dire of events. For instance, the mystic Alice Bailey once wrote that the noise from the atomic bomb explosions of World War II speeded up evolution on the planet and would bring about events that would, “transform world thinking, and lead to a new type of transmutative process.”1 For anyone similarly inclined toward the sunny side of the street, there’s even a way to put a positive spin on the scourge of pollution affecting the planet now, including those radiation clouds emanating from Japan. It seems that radiation and pollution may, in some cases, spawn evolutionary adaptations and leaps.
Reports coming out of Chernobyl 25 years after the nuclear disaster there attest to this fact.2 In the 1660-square-mile restricted area around the site of the meltdown — an evacuated area covering parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia — lush, primeval forests now thrive.3 Herds of wild animals — bears, wolves, deer, wild boar and so on — now roam the area where civilization once held sway, grazing their way down former city streets now overgrown. In fact, over 100 species on the endangered list inhabit the area, including 40 species never seen there before the accident.
Ecologist James Morris of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, says, “By any measure of ecological function these ecosystems seem to be operating normally. The biodiversity is higher there than before the accident.”
How is it possible for life to thrive in an area that won’t be habitable by humans for thousands of years? According to experts, after the accident, the most vulnerable organisms died, while those that remained and proliferated somehow made adaptations that allowed them to live in a radioactive environment. For instance, when scientists compared soy plants growing at Chernobyl to soy plants from uncontaminated areas, they found that the Chernobyl crop contained specialized proteins that defended cells from heavy metal and radiation damage, plus, the overall ratio of 24 different proteins in the mutated plants differed from those outside of the evacuated zone.4 According to Martin Hajduch of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, “One protein [in the Chernobyl crop] is known to actually protect human blood from radiation.”
Other plant species also have mutated. There’s a pine forest that turned from green to red, with longer needles than before, but yet, it seems perfectly healthy. It is now known as the “Red Forest.” There are birch trees that have only branches and no trunks. And researchers have noted changes in the DNA of some animal species, too.
For instance, a strain of mice inhabiting the site seems to have developed the capacity to repair cells damaged by radiation. There are birds with unusually high rates of albinism and catfish growing to unusual sizes. Generally, animals can withstand higher doses of radiation than humans, which partially accounts for their success in repopulating the area. Even so, animals are affected by radiation, and some species, particularly birds, show unusually high cancer rates. Whether they’ll adapt over time remains to be seen.
As for humans, the news isn’t quite as good. The official death toll at Chernobyl is ultimately expected to reach anywhere from 4,000 to over 100,000,5 but unofficial estimate range as high as a million people who might ultimately die as a result of exposure to radiation.
For those more worried about oil spills and other types of environmental contamination, there’s interesting news, too. There’s a type of fish, the Atlantic tomcod, that seems to be thriving in the PCB-permeated waters of the Hudson River.6 The Hudson became polluted with PCBs 50 years ago when General Electric released about 1.3 million pounds of toxins into the waterway. Most of the species inhabiting the area died off or became contaminated, but the Atlantic tomcod, it seems, adapted and developed a genetic resistance to the pollutant. Scientists studying pollution in other waterways have noted similar developments with other species of fish. “It’s an example of how human activities can drive evolution by introducing stress factors into the environment,” says researcher Diana Franks, who is studying the Hudson River fish.
Meanwhile, outside of Chernobyl, research indicates other interesting side effects that might result from radiation. Researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, for instance, are studying a species of fungus that thrives on radiation and converts it into fuel.7 According to study leader Ekaterina Dadachova, “Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research suggests that melanin [a pigment found in certain types of mushrooms] can use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – ionizing radiation – to benefit the fungi containing it.” In fact, the dark mushrooms seem to grow better in a radioactive environment than outside of it.
Certainly, the devastating effects of radiation and pollution far outweigh the good that may come from evolutionary adaptations hundreds of years in the future — at least from the perspective of those of us enjoying life on earth today. Still, it makes an interesting contrast to the apocalyptic films that show an earth barren of life in the aftermath of nuclear or environmental disaster. Indeed, there might be a possibility that such an aftermath could actually give birth to new life forms, though humans may not be among the species to be around to enjoy them.
1 Hickox, Norma. “The Science of Music Prophesized by Alice Bailey Books.” 14 September 2010. Esoteric Online. April 13, 2010. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:iZ-lvbRj9ZsJ:www.esotericonline.net/profiles/blogs/the-science-of-music+sound+atomic+bomb+alice+bailey&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a&source=www.google.com
2 Shukman, Henry. “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden” March 2011. Outside Magazine. 13 April 2011. http://outsideonline.com/adventure/travel-ga-201103-chernobyl-wildlife-refuge-sidwcmdev_154483.html
3 Hopkin, Michael. “Chernobyl ecosystems ‘remarkably healthy.'” 9 August 2005. Nature News. 13 April 2011. http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050808/full/news050808-4.html
4 Calloway, Ewen. “Chernobyl fallout could drive evolution of ‘space plants'” 15 May 2009. New Scientist. 13 April 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17136-chernobyl-fallout-could-drive-evolution-of-space-plants.html
5 Chernobyl’s Legacy:Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts. The Chernobyl Forum: 2003–2005 Second revised version. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf
6 “Pollution Triggers Genetic Resistance Mechanism in a Coastal Fish”18 February 2011. Science Daily. 14 April 2011. < http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110217141513.htm>
7 “Radiation-loving fungi: the perfect space food?” 23 May 2007. New Scientist. 14 April 2011. < http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11917-radiationloving-fungi-the-perfect-space-food.html>