After Chernobyl: why plants don’t get cancer?

Chernobyl has become synonymous with disaster. The nuclear disaster of 1986, about which spoke the whole world, thanks to the TV series from HBO, have caused thousands of cancer patients turned the once densely populated district in the Ghost town and led to the creation of the exclusion zone in the 2600 square kilometers. But the Chernobyl exclusion zone are alive. Wolves, bears and boars have returned to the lush forests surrounding the old nuclear plant.


As for the vegetation, all of it, except for the most vulnerable and exposed to radiation plants never died and even in the most radioactive areas recovered within three years. People, other mammals and birds would have long died from the radiation, which irradiated the plants in the most polluted areas. So why is the plant life so as to resist radiation and nuclear disaster?

What happened to the plants in Chernobyl?

To answer this question, we first need to understand how the nuclear reactors radiation affects living cells. Radioactive material of Chernobyl “unstable”, because it constantly emits high-energy particles and waves, which destroy the cell structure or produce chemically active substances attacking the cellular mechanism.

Most of the parts of the cell can be replaced in case of damage, but DNA is an important exception. At high doses the DNA becomes the bat and the cells quickly die. Low doses can result in less damage from the point of view of mutations thatcell functions — for example, make them carcinogenic, uncontrolled breeding, and intruding in other parts of the body.


In animals, it often leads to death because their cells and system are very specialized and not very flexible. Imagine the biology of animals as complex machine in which every cell and organ has its place and purpose, and all the parts must work and communicate together so that individual lived. Man cannot live without a brain, lungs or heart.

But the plants grow much more flexibly and organically. Since they can’t move they have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Instead of having a particular pattern like the animal, plants create it as development. Grow longer roots or stems of taller — it depends on the balance of chemical signals from other parts of the plant and the “tree of the Internet”, as well as light, temperature, water and nutrition conditions.

Crucially, unlike animal cells, almost all plant cells are able to create new cells of any type needed by the plant. That’s why the gardener can grow a new plant from cuttings, the roots will sprout from what was once a stem or leaf.

All this means that plants can replace dead cells or the tissue is much easier than animals, no matter they are damaged in an attack by an animal or radiation.

Although the radiation and other types of DNA damage can cause cancer in plants, mutated cells are usually not able to move from one part of the plant to another, as in the process of cancer, due to the rigid coupling walls surrounding the plant cells. This “tumor” will not be fatal in the vast majority of cases because the plant will find a way to operate without the faulty tissue.

Remarkably, in addition to this innate resistance to radiation, some of the plants in the Chernobyl exclusion zone appear to use additional mechanisms to protect their DNA, changing the chemical composition to make it more resistant to damage, and include a system to restore it if it doesn’t work. The level of natural radiation on the Earth’s surface was much higher in the distant past, when developing the first plants, so the plants in the exclusion zone can apply these ancient mechanisms of protection.

Now life around Chernobyl is thriving. The diversity of plants and animals, perhaps even higher than it was before the disaster. In a sense, the Chernobyl catastrophe has become a Paradise on earth: expelling themselves from the area, we have cleared a space for the return of nature.