Gut microbe signature could tag radiation exposure

Radiation exposure can be a result of an accident, like the 2011 explosion at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, war or terrorism, and its damage isn't easy to predict from symptoms or from readings from dosimeters. But the information is important so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. The signatures of the intestinal microbiota that we all carry could act as biomarkers of radiation exposure, according to an animal study published in Radiation Research.

The team of researchers from the U.S. looked at samples of rat droppings before and after exposure to radiation and found that levels of different gut bugs increased, decreased or stayed the same. Many of these bacteria are the same as those found in humans, and some of the changes were found just four days after exposure.

"If there were to be a radiological terrorism scenario, there could be hundreds of thousands of people that would be present around the ground zero area, and limited medical resources available to evaluate their exposure levels," explained John E. Baker, Ph.D., professor of surgery, biochemistry, pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who is the lead author of the study. "Analyzing microbial signatures in those patients would be a non-invasive way to obtain results in a timely fashion, and allow us to commit resources to patients in need of intervention."

This is an early study--it's just in rats--and so is just an idea at the moment. But the strength of such a test would be that it is non-invasive and simple, and has an in-built control because a range of the bacteria are unaffected by the radiation, and so could be used to support other forms of screening and act as an early warning of damage.

- read the press release
- see the abstract in Radiation Research

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