Mutated Wolves at Chernobyl May Hold the Keys to Curing Cancer 

Milan Sommer /
Milan Sommer /

Animals have an astounding way of rising to meet challenges, frequently thriving in areas that humans would call inhospitable. The ability of wildlife to adapt and evolve to meet the challenges of living in these areas is incredible, and the secrets of their survival may hold the potential for astonishing breakthroughs in medicine. 

On April 26, 1986, one of the most catastrophic meltdowns ever recorded occurred at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant during a routine test. Due to operator errors and reactor design flaws, a power surge led to a meltdown, steam explosions, and the destruction of the reactor containment building.  

Two people were killed by debris, and 28 died from acute radiation sickness. The USSR and Europe were contaminated with airborne radioactive materials. An exclusion zone was established, and approximately 49,000 people were evacuated. The disaster cost an estimated US$700 billion and had significant environmental and human impacts. 

Since the incident, the area has remained off-limits to humans because it remains far too radioactive for survival. But wildlife, quick to fill the vacuum created by the absence of humans, has not only survived in this radioactive zone – the animals have thrived. 

The exclusion zone covers just over 1600 square miles and has become an unofficial wildlife sanctuary for many birds, mammals, and insects. One breed of nearly extinct horse was deliberately reintroduced in the CEZ in the hopes that they would repopulate without the challenges of the human population. The Przewalski’s horse population has now doubled. 

Many animals in Chernobyl have experienced a population boom, surprising scientists with their ability to thrive in such a harsh environment. In 2014, researchers from Princeton started studying these animals to learn how they survive at deadly radiation levels six times higher than humans can tolerate. 

Studying the Gray Wolf Population Cara Love, the head of the research team in Chernobyl, Cara Love, has been studying the Gray Wolf population in the CEZ, collecting blood samples and placing trackers on the gray wolves in the area. These trackers provide continuous information about the radiation levels the wolves were exposed to. 

This research revealed something remarkable. The wolves of Chernobyl have developed altered immune systems to adapt to their radioactive surroundings. 

And these unique adaptations may hold the keys to curing cancer. 

The research team found that the DNA of the wolves in the CEZ differs from that of native wolves living outside of it. These mutations seem to have evolved in response to the radiation, giving the wolves immune defenses that humans don’t have. These discoveries could transform cancer research, providing new ideas for treatments and preventive measures for humans. Researchers hope the findings will pave the way for developing future life-saving treatments for cancer patients. 

It’s an avenue of research that is currently on hold because of the war in Ukraine. Landmines are planted throughout the CEZ, making further research dangerous. Before that, research had been paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Genetic mutations have been found in nearly every animal living in the CEZ, but not all have benefited them. Right after the accident, severe mutations and deformities such as facial malformations, extra limbs, abnormal coloring, and smaller size were observed in animal populations throughout the zone and surrounding areas. 

Studies show that many animals in Chernobyl have higher rates of genetic damage and mutations, affecting various species like birds, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders, and mammals. Radiation has also reduced the population and reproduction of many animals living in the CEZ. 

Even man’s best friend has developed a unique genetic profile while living in the radioactive zone.
Little is known about how local dogs survived after the nuclear accident, but they have been living in the CEZ since the incident, cared for by cleanup crews and tourists. The first genetic analysis of these dogs found that those in the power plant area are genetically distinct from those living farther away. Researchers aren’t entirely sure if this is because of the radioactivity or because the dogs are isolated from their domestic counterparts.  

Although the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) remains inaccessible, related research has continued elsewhere following the presentation of the wolf discovery at the 2024 Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in Seattle.  

The existence of animals in the CEZ proves that survival is possible in even the most inhospitable conditions. However, how these animals have adapted to survive may bring an even bigger hope for humanity – a cure for cancer.