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New Method Offers Insight Into Radiation Damage to DNA

A new study assessing cells’ ability to repair DNA damage suggests a mechanism for why some types of radiation are more harmful than others. The findings may help clarify the risks faced by future astronauts on long-term missions to the moon or Mars.

by Karen McNulty Walsh

A new technique for assessing repair of the damage radiation causes to DNA, life’s genetic instruction molecule, indicates that the spatial arrangement of damaged sites, or lesions, is more important than the number of lesions in determining the severity of damage.

The technique helps reveal why high-energy charged particles, such as the heavy ions found in outer space, are more potentially harmful than lower-energy forms of radiation, such as x-rays and gamma rays. These findings, published recently in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, may help clarify the risks faced by future astronauts flying long-term missions to the moon or Mars.

Photo of Betsy Sutherland

Betsy Sutherland studies the potentially damaging effects of simulated space radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — one of the few places in the world that can simulate the harsh cosmic and solar radiation environment found in space. More...

“Understanding the effects on humans of radiation exposure — whether in the natural environment, in outer space, in the workplace, or due to radiation therapy — requires insight into the induction and repair of damage to DNA,” said Brookhaven National Laboratory biologist Betsy Sutherland, an expert in the study of space radiation.

Sutherland developed the new technique for monitoring the repair of radiation-damaged DNA with colleague Brigitte Paap, now at Arizona State University, with funding from the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Space Biomedical Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Brookhaven Lab Pollution Prevention Program.

The technique uses different colored fluorescent “tags” instead of radioactive ones to monitor repair of damage to DNA. Because these fluorescent tags reduce the amount of hazardous waste associated with the research (as well as its cost), Sutherland and Paap have been recognized by DOE’s Office of Science with a “Best in Class” pollution prevention award.