Approximately one in every 15 U.S. homes is estimated to contain radon levels above the action level set forth by the EPA, but no home in the U.S. has radiation levels anywhere near that of the Fukushima radiation zone.
In fact, the only creatures living there now are cows, and they have recently found a new purpose in life: science.
The pastures near Fukushima, an area once rich with agricultural value, now house radioactivity that is 15 times the safe benchmark. All of the creatures in that area — including the cows — are living with incredibly high levels of radiation.
Rather than move these cows or use them for food, scientists have chosen to use them for research.
Researchers visit every three months to test livestock living within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima plant, where three reactors melted down after a massive tsunami hit in 2011.
The research team, made up of veterinary and radiation experts from Iwate University, Tokai University and Kitasato University, was established a year after the meltdowns.
Keiji Okada, associate professor of veterinary medicine and agriculture at Iwate University, explained that at one point, the government didn’t see any use in studying the animals.
“There are no precedent studies of animals being exposed to low-dose radiation, and we have no idea what results we are going to get,” Okada said. “That is exactly why it needs to be monitored.”
However, cows aren’t the only organisms being studied in regards to radiation.
Known as the world’s hardiest animal, tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, have a way of surviving even the most intense radiation. Now, scientists know how they do it.
Scientists have identified the cause of their uncanny durability to a protective protein they evolved that somehow shields their DNA from radiation damage.
The protein, dubbed Dsup (short for damage suppressor), appears to function by forming a sort of cocoon around DNA without disrupting other functions.
“We guess that Dsup binds densely to DNA to provide a shield against environmental stress, somehow making DNA inaccessible to any damaging agents,” says Takekazu Kunieda at the University of Tokyo.
“To our knowledge, this is the first identification of a DNA-associating protein which confers DNA protection and improved tolerance to radioactivity in animal cells.”
Shockingly enough, the protein also protected human cells when presented with them.
However, the cows in Fukushima have no such protective functions.
So far, the animals’ organs and vitals have shown no signs of abnormality as a result of the radiation, but only time and more research will yield educational results.
Okada said it’s still too early to draw conclusions.