Radioactivity muddles the alphabet of DNA

Dec 17, 2013

Curtin University researchers have shown natural radioactivity within DNA can alter chemical compounds, providing a new pathway for genetic mutation.

The research, recently published in Biochimica et Biophysica Acta-General Subjects, for the first time looked at natural radioactivity within human DNA on the atomic-scale.

While radioactivity occurs naturally in our bodies as well as in every living organism across the planet, it was never before thought to affect our DNA in such a direct way.

Using high-performance computers, the research team from Curtin and Los Alamos National Laboratory were able to show radioactivity could alter molecular structures which encode genetic information, creating new molecules that do not belong to the four-letter alphabet of DNA.

Professor Nigel Marks from Curtin's Discipline of Physics and Astronomy and Curtin's Nanochemistry Research Institute said the new molecules may well generate mutations by confusing the replication mechanisms in DNA.

"This work takes an entirely new direction on research into natural radioactivity in biology and raises important questions about genetic mutation," Professor Marks said.

"We have discovered a subtle process that could easily be overlooked by the standard cell repair mechanisms in the body, potentially creating a new pathway for mutations to occur."

Professor Marks said the work was both exciting and unexpected, emerging as a spin-off from an Australian Research Council funded project on nuclear waste.

"As part of the project between Curtin and Los Alamos we developed a suite of computational tools to examine deliberate radioactivity in crystalline solids, only to later realise that the same methods could be applied to natural radioactivity in molecules," he said.

"This direction was an unplanned outcome of our research program – just the way blue skies research should be."

The natural radioactivity in focus involved the decay of carbon atoms, Carbon-14, turning into nitrogen atoms, Nitrogen-14.

Professor Marks said this was one of the most abundant forms of radioactive decay occurring in biological systems. Over a human lifetime, around 50 billion Carbon-14 decays occur within our DNA.

"While it is still not obvious how DNA replication is affected by the presence of that are different to the four-letter alphabet of DNA, it is quite remarkable to consider that Carbon-14 could be a source of genetic mutation that would be impossible to avoid due to the universal presence of radiocarbon in the environment," Professor Marks said.

Explore further: Explainer: The difference between radiation and radioactivity

More information: The research paper, Carbon-14 decay as a source of non-canonical bases in DNA, is available at www.sciencedirect.com/science/… ii/S0304416513004431

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TheHealthPhysicist
2.5 / 5 (2) Dec 17, 2013
This is really odd. We've long known ionizing has the energy to alter molecular bonds and create new molecules.
210
not rated yet Dec 17, 2013
As if, we had not already, in the last 30 days, discovered so very much that we did not know six months ago that affects DNA/genetics!?!
They have discovered 'spooky action at a distance' propagated by....by....some unknown entity but apparently generated by , of all things, WATER. Then the effect, extensive and extended effect of the Brain-Gut-axis: It does more than we thought or knew!
The influence of our canine friends on our emotional and gut health by effecting the gut biome, again! The simplistic model of mutation so often quoted as being a vital part of Evolution, over the last 100 years, was a poor cousin to the growing body of mutagenic and environmental discovery that can lead to mutation that effects us and our planet of living beings.
At the rate discovery is occurring...we may need a new wing to Wikipedia before the end of THIS year!

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