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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Sex & the Single Worm

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on the way radioactive pollution is changing the sex lives of worms near Chernobyl.


CURWOOD: Coming up, fighting mountaintop removal in West Virginia. First this note on emerging science from Maggie Villiger.

[MUSIC: Science Note Theme]

VILLIGER: New research shows that chronic low-level radioactivity in the environment can induce worms to change their sexual behavior. Some Ukrainian worms are opting to have sex with each other rather than stick with their normal asexual reproduction. Scientists compared these aquatic worms living in two similar lakes. The only difference was one lake had concentrations of radioactive strontium 90 that were more than 50 times higher than normal, thanks to the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Worms living in that contaminated lake had higher numbers of mutated cells in their bodies. And the more chromosome damage a particular worm had, the higher the chance it was looking for a mate.

Researchers think the worms' unusual sexual reproduction may be a survival strategy, since the offspring receive genes from two parents instead of one. Natural selection would promote genes that increased chances of survival in the new radioactive conditions. This study is one of the first to look at how wildlife is affected by radioactive pollution. The researchers hope to examine the phenomenon in other species around the world.

That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC Ali Akbar Khan “India Blue” A World Instrumental Collection – Putumayo (1996)]



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