Chernobyl Has Been Reclaimed by Plants. Why Don’t They Die From Cancer?

Chernobyl has become a byword for catastrophe. The 1986 nuclear disaster, recently brought back into the public eye by the hugely popular TV show of the same name, caused thousands of cancers, turned a once populous area into a ghost city, and resulted in the setting up of an exclusion zone 2600 km² in size.

切尔诺贝利已经成为灾难的代名词。最近由于HBO的同名剧集《Chernobyl》,再次将1986年的核事故带入公众眼中。这场核事故诱发了千万例癌症,将一座城市变成鬼城,并且将2,600 平方千米的土地变为一片禁区。

But Chernobyl’s exclusion zone isn’t devoid of life. Wolves, boars and bears have returned to the lush forests surrounding the old nuclear plant.

但是切尔诺贝利禁区并不是一片荒芜毫无生命。狼、野猪和熊已经回到这片围绕着核电站遗址的森林。

And when it comes to vegetation, all but the most vulnerable and exposed plant life never died in the first place, and even in the most radioactive areas of the zone, vegetation was recovering within three years.

说回植物,除了那些及其脆弱和直接暴露在核辐射中的植物,其他的所有植物并没有立即死去。即使实在核辐射最严重的地方,植物也可以在三年之间恢复如初。

Humans and other mammals and birds would have been killed many times over by the radiation that plants in the most contaminated areas received. So why is plant life so resilient to radiation and nuclear disaster?

如果呆在辐射最严重的地方,恐怕人类或者其他哺乳动物已经被杀死好几回了。那为什么植物对辐射和核泄漏这么无所谓呢?

To answer this question, we first need to understand how radiation from nuclear reactors affects living cells. Chernobyl’s radioactive material is “unstable” because it is constantly firing out high energy particles and waves that smash cellular structures or produce reactive chemicals which attack the cells’ machinery.

为了回答这个问题,我们首先得知道核反应堆中得辐射是这么影响动物细胞的。切尔诺贝利的放射性物质是很不稳定的,因为它持续地向外界发射高能粒子和射线,这会粉碎细胞结构或产生攻击细胞的活性化学物质。

Most parts of the cell are replaceable if damaged, but DNA is a crucial exception. At higher radiation doses, DNA becomes garbled and cells die quickly.

一个细胞的大部分结构都是可以替换的,但是DNA是一个最致命的例外。一个高剂量的辐射会彻底击碎DNA,随之细胞也会很快死去。

Lower doses can cause subtler damage in the form of mutations altering the way that the cell functions – for example, causing it to become cancerous, multiply uncontrollably, and spread to other parts of the body.

低剂量的辐射可能引起突变,这是一种更微妙的损伤。例如它可能会引起癌症,细胞开始不受控制地繁殖,并扩散到身体的其他部位。

In animals this is often fatal, because their cells and systems are highly specialised and inflexible.

但是,对动物来说,这往往是致命的。因为动物的细胞和系统是高度分工且不会灵活转变的。

Think of animal biology as an intricate machine in which each cell and organ has a place and purpose, and all parts must work and cooperate for the individual to survive. A human cannot manage without a brain, heart or lungs.

我们可以将动物类比为一个错综复杂的机器,在这个机器中,每一个细胞或者器官都有特定的位置和功能。并且所有的部分都需要协调工作,才能使机器运转起来。一个人缺了大脑、心脏或者肺,那是肯定不能生存下来的。

Plants, however, develop in a much more flexible and organic way.

然而,植物却进化出一种更随机应变的方式。

Because they can’t move, they have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Rather than having a defined structure as an animal does, plants make it up as they go along.

由于它们不能移动,所以它们没有选择只能去适应身边的环境。植物不像动物一样有手有腿,它们只能靠自己来弥补这些缺陷。

Whether they grow deeper roots or a taller stem depends on the balance of chemical signals from other parts of the plant and the “wood wide web“, as well as light, temperature, water and nutrient conditions.

植物能不能扎更深的根或长更高的茎是取决于各种化学信号之间的平衡,而这些化学信号的来源是来自于“植维网”的,例如光照、温度、水分和营养条件。

Critically, unlike animal cells, almost all plant cells are able to create new cells of whatever type the plant needs. This is why a gardener can grow new plants from cuttings, with roots sprouting from what was once a stem or leaf.

特别的是,不像动物细胞,几乎所有的植物细胞都可以分裂为任何类型植物需要的细胞。这也是为什么园丁可以通过切茎移植新的一株植物,新的植物的跟就是原来的茎干或是叶子上的细胞。(注:这里好像说的植物的大部分细胞都具有动物干细胞的特性)

All of this means that plants can replace dead cells or tissues much more easily than animals, whether the damage is due to being attacked by an animal or to radiation.

这就意味着,植物可以更轻松地去更换那些损坏的细胞或组织,而不用管这些损坏时来源于动物的攻击还是核辐射。

And while radiation and other types of DNA damage can cause tumours in plants, mutated cells are generally not able to spread from one part of the plant to another as cancers do, thanks to the rigid, interconnecting walls surrounding plant cells.

虽然核辐射和它引起的癌变也会在植物体内引起肿瘤,但是这些突变却不会像动物体内的癌细胞一样扩散到其他组织。这得多谢植物细胞外面那一层坚硬的细胞壁。

Nor are such tumours fatal in the vast majority of cases, because the plant can find ways to work around the malfunctioning tissue.

多数情况下这些肿瘤也不是致命的,因为植物也可以找到其他方法来解决这些突变。

Interestingly, in addition to this innate resilience to radiation, some plants in the Chernobyl exclusion zone seem to be using extra mechanisms to protect their DNA, changing its chemistry to make it more resistant to damage, and turning on systems to repair it if this doesn’t work.

有趣的是,除了这些天生的抵御辐射的能力之外,科学家发现在切尔诺贝利禁区之外的一些植物正在使用额外的方式来保护自己的DNA。改变它们的化学信号,使得植物对这些伤害更有抵抗力。如果这个不管用的时候,就开启修复系统来修复它。(注:这里说的化学信号很有可能就是前文说的那些“植维网”的信号)

Levels of natural radiation on the Earth’s surface were much higher in the distant past when early plants were evolving, so plants in the exclusion zone may be drawing upon adaptations dating back to this time in order to survive.

植物在地球表面刚开始演化的时候,自然界的辐射水平要比现在高得多,所以在核辐射区的植物也许只是“退化”到了史前水平来使自己活下来。

A new lease of life

Life is now thriving around Chernobyl. Populations of many plant and animal species are actually greater than they were before the disaster.

现在,切尔诺贝利周围生机勃勃。很多植物和动物的数量要比核泄漏之前还要多。

Given the tragic loss and shortening of human lives associated with Chernobyl, this resurgence of nature may surprise you. Radiation does have demonstrably harmful effects on plant life, and may shorten the lives of individual plants and animals. But if life-sustaining resources are in abundant enough supply and burdens are not fatal, then life will flourish.

考虑到人类生命的短暂和核泄漏造成的损失,大自然的修复能力也许让你大吃一惊。核辐射对植物来说确实是有明显的坏影响,而且也许缩短了动植物的个体生命。但是只要保持生命繁殖的资源够用,且造成的伤害不是致命的,那么植物在这样的条件下必定会再次繁荣。

Crucially, the burden brought by radiation at Chernobyl is less severe than the benefits reaped from humans leaving the area. Now essentially one of Europe’s largest nature preserves, the ecosystem supports more life than before, even if each individual cycle of that life lasts a little less.

重点是,切尔诺贝利造成的伤害比不上人类离开的好处。现在,切尔诺贝利基本上就是欧洲最大的自然保护区,这个生态系统比以前容纳了更多生命。即使是每一个个体的寿命可能会短一些。

In a way, the Chernobyl disaster reveals the true extent of our environmental impact on the planet. Harmful as it was, the nuclear accident was far less destructive to the local ecosystem than we were. In driving ourselves away from the area, we have created space for nature to return. 

某种意义上,切尔诺贝利的灾难揭示了人类对地球生态造成的影响。尽管核辐射危害性很大,但是核辐射造成的灾难远不及我们对当地生态造成的损伤。在远离核辐射地区的过程中,我我们也创造了供生命回归自然的空间。

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