chernobyl wolves
© REUTERSWolves wander freely inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
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Mutant wolves that roam the human-free Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have developed cancer-resilient genomes that could be key to helping humans fight the deadly disease, according to a study.

The wild animals have managed to adapt and survive the high levels of radiation that have plagued the area after a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded in 1986, becoming the world's worst nuclear accident.

Humans abandoned the area after the explosion leaked cancer-causing radiation into the environment, and a 1,000-square-mile zone was roped off to prevent further human exposure.

But in the nearly 38 years since the nuclear disaster, wildlife has reclaimed the area — including packs of wolves that seem to be unaffected by the chronic exposure to the radiation.

Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist and ecotoxicologist in Shane Campbell-Staton's lab at Princeton University, has been studying how the mutant wolves have evolved to survive their radioactive environment and presented her findings at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle, Washington, last month.

In 2014, Love and her colleagues went inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and put GPS collars equipped with radiation dosimeters on the wild wolves.

They also took blood from the animals to understand their responses to the cancer-causing radiation, according to a release published by the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

With the specialized collars, the researchers can get real-time measurements of where the wolves are and how much radiation they are exposed to, Love said.

They learned that the wolves are exposed to 11.28 millirem of radiation daily for their lifespans — more than six times the legal safety limit for humans.

The Chernobyl wolves' immune systems appeared different than normal wolves' — similar to those of cancer patients going through radiation treatment, the researchers found.

Love pinpointed specific regions of the wolf genome that seem to be resilient to increased cancer risk, the release states.

The research could be key to examining how gene mutations in humans could increase the odds of surviving cancer — flipping the script on many known gene mutations, like BRCA, that cause cancer.

Chernobyl dogs — the descendants of former residents' pets — may also possess similar cancer resilence, though they haven't been studied the same way as their wild cousins.

Dogs were immediately in the area after the disaster and have adapted better than other species — like birds, which experienced extreme genetic defects as a result of the toxic radiation.

The findings are especially valuable as scientists have learned that canines fight off cancer more similarly to the way humans do than lab rats.

Unfortunately, Love's work has stalled somewhat as she and her colleagues have been unable to return to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — first due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.