Photo: Soybeans growing near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
Soy crops are so tough they can flourish in the contaminated soil around Chernobyl and produce healthy offspring.
If scientists can understand how plants survive in ultra-hostile environments, it will help them engineer super hearty plants to withstand drought conditions or grow on marginal cropland.
“The fact that plants were able to adapt to the area of the world’s largest nuclear accident, is very encouraging,” says Martin Hajduch, a plant biotechnology expert at the Slovak Academy of Sciences and coauthor of the study in the Journal of Proteome Research. “So we were interested to know how plants can do such a job.”
Hajduch’s team built and harvested seeds from a garden near the village of Chistogalovka, which is roughly five kilometers from the ruined nuclear power plant. They analyzed the seeds with all sorts of modern proteomics tricks, going a step beyond the narrowly-focused studies that other scientists have done.
Biologists have been studying the effects of radiation on plants for decades, and they have identified a handful of proteins that seem to protect crops from genetic damage, but this is the first time that anyone has taken a snapshot of everything that’s going on inside of Chernobyl-grown vegetables.
The Slovak scientists started by freezing each seed with liquid nitrogen and crushing it to extract a mix of proteins. Then they sorted those molecules in an electrified block of gel, and identified each one with a mass spectrometer. As a reference, they did the same thing to seeds from a garden 100 kilometers from the disaster area.
Hajduch learned that the contaminated plants make a lot of changes to defend themselves, adjusting the levels of dozens of proteins that also guard against disease, heavy metals, and salt. All of that makes sense, but the biggest difference between plants from the wasteland and the controls was somewhat surprising. The levels of hundreds of proteins that are known for their ability to shuttle other proteins around — or lock them up in storage — had been lowered.
As a result of those adjustments, the levels of Cesium-137 in the beans was remarkably low. The plants are healthy and fertile, but definitely not safe to eat. Hajduch says that he will complete a study of their progeny soon, but he wouldn’t want to make them into tofu.