Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favors adaptation to oxidative stress in birds

Ismael Galván, Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati, Shanna Jenkinson, Ghanem Ghanem, Kazumasa Wakamatsu, Timothy A. Mousseau and Anders P. Møller

1. Ionizing radiation produces oxidative stress, but organisms can adapt to their exposure with physiological adaptive responses. However, the role of adioadaptive responses in wild populations remains poorly known.

2. At Chernobyl, studies of birds and other taxa including humans show that chronic exposure to radiation depletes antioxidants and increases oxidative damage. Here we present analyses of levels of the most important intracellular antioxidant (i.e., glutathione, GSH), its redox status, DNA damage and body condition in 16 species of birds exposed to radiation at Chernobyl. We use an approach that allows considering the individual bird as the sampling unit while controlling for phylogenetic effects, thus increasing the statistical power by avoiding the use of species means as done for most previous comparative studies.

3. As a consequence, we found a pattern radically different from previous studies in wild populations, showing that GSH levels and body condition increased, and oxidative stress and DNA damage decreased, with increasing background radiation. Thus, when several species are considered, the overall pattern indicates that birds are not negatively affected by chronic exposure to radiation and may even obtain beneficial hormetic effects following an adaptive response. Analysis of the
phylogenetic signal supports the existence of adaptation in the studied traits, particularly in GSH levels and DNA damage.

4. We also show that, under equal levels of radiation, the birds that produce larger amounts of the pigment pheomelanin and lower amounts of eumelanin pay a cost in terms of decreased GSH levels, increased oxidative stress and DNA damage, and poorer body condition. Radiation, however, diminished another potential cost of pheomelanin, namely its tendency to produce free radicals when exposed to radiation, because it induced a change toward the production of less pro-oxidant forms of pheomelanin with higher benzothiazole-to-benzothiazine ratios, which may have facilitated the acclimation of birds to radiation exposure.

5. Our findings represent the first evidence of adaptation to ionizing radiation in wild animals, and confirm that pheomelanin synthesis represents an evolutionary constraint under stressful environmental conditions because it requires GSH consumption.