How Radiation Changes Your DNA

What do your phone, the sun, the stove, far-off
black-holes and the palm of your hands all have in common? Radiation, baby. It’s everywhere. Up and atom friends, Trace here emitting and
absorbing radiation at your eyeballs for DNews! When I say radiation, most people do this,
but to be honest, radiation on it’s own isn’t necessarily harmful! The term radiation is
super broad, gamma rays shooting out of stars is radiation, heat coming off the pavement
on a hot day is radiation, and the radio waves picked up and emitted by cell phones, radio
stations and WiFi networks are radiation too — even the light you’re seeing on this screen
is radiation. The thing is, even though radio, microwave, visible and infrared, are technically
radiation — when we SAY radiation, most people think of dangerous high-energy particles called
IONIZING radiation. That includes Ultraviolet, X-Rays, or Gamma Rays. Which makes sense,
but what can that stuff DO to you when it hits your body? In 1927, in the journal Science, Hermann Muller
published a paper showing the ionizing radiation of x-rays damaged the genes of fruit flies.
He later won a Nobel prize! Ionizing radiation is high-energy radiation… it’s got a lot
of energy. When this high-energy particle or wave hits an atom, the atom absorbs the
energy; causing the weakest electron to pop off! This creates a charged atom called an
ion! Do that enough and all that high-energy can
cause chemical changes in our tissue. If ionizing radiation affects too many cells at once,
or we absorb a bunch over time — that’s when we risk sickness, radiation poisoning, or
eventually cancer. That happens when the radiation changes how things fit together. It might
knock off bits of our DNA, mess with its structure, or (at worst) break one or both strands of
the DNA double helix! That alone isn’t damaging, but sometimes, the body makes mistakes when
repairing that damage — causing wide-spread issues. But chances are, you’ll never have to worry
too much about how much radiation you’re being exposed to. Radiation dosage is measured in
sieverts. One sievert in a short time can cause radiation sickness and 10 can kill.
But because we’d never really encounter a full sievert, scientists usually talk in millisieverts.
Every year, just living on Earth exposes us to 2.4 mSv in natural background radiation,
and its fine. A chest x-ray, for example, is 6.8 mSv, so while ONE X-Ray won’t hurt
you, a bunch throughout your life (or all at once) can damage your tissues enough to
cause health problems. If that weren’t complicated enough, there
are different types of ionizing radiation! Alpha, Beta, Gamma and X-Rays; listed in increasing
energy levels. Alpha radiation is the slow big fella, it can’t really penetrate your
body, but it’s essentially a handful of protons and neutrons. Beta is basically a tiny fast-moving
electron; it can penetrate your body, but not some denser materials, like aluminum.
Then there’s gamma radiation, which is just fast-moving pure energy! It’s so small it
can pass between your cells, but if it hits your DNA it’ll mess you up — though it won’t
make you green and invulnerable. In fact gamma so high energy, it can pass though you, aluminum
and even concrete walls — though not lead it’s too dense. X-Rays are like gamma rays,
but lower energy. In the end, you probably don’t have to worry
a LOT about ionizing radiation. UV rays can damage DNA over time, so wear sunscreen. X-Rays
are highly regulated, and hopefully you haven’t spent too much time near unbridled nuclear
reactions, or exposed yourself to cosmic rays. Most radiation is just regular non-ionizing
stuff. Heck, even humans emit infrared radiation in the form of heat and some ionizing radiation
that we absorb from food, like bananas. It’s everywhere! And though some of it can damage
you, it’s not all bad.


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