Long-lived, sensitive, and specific biomarkers of particular mutagenic agents are much sought after and potentially have broad applications in the fields of cancer biology, epidemiology, and prevention. Many clastogens induce a spectrum of chromosome aberrations, and some of them can be exploited as biomarkers of exposure. Densely ionizing radiation, for example, alpha particle radiation (from radon or plutonium) and neutron radiation, preferentially induces complex chromosome aberrations, which can be detected by the 24-color multifluor fluorescence in situ hybridization (mFISH) technique. We report the detection and quantification of stable complex chromosome aberrations in lymphocytes of healthy former nuclear-weapons workers, who were exposed many years ago to plutonium, gamma rays, or both, at the Mayak weapons complex in Russia. We analyzed peripheral-blood lymphocytes from these individuals for the presence of persistent complex chromosome aberrations. A significantly elevated frequency of complex chromosome translocations was detected in the highly exposed plutonium workers but not in the group exposed only to high doses of gamma radiation. No such differences were found for simple chromosomal aberrations. The results suggest that stable complex chromosomal translocations represent a long-lived, quantitative, low-background biomarker of densely ionizing radiation for human populations exposed many years ago.
Speculation has long surrounded the question of whether past exposure to ionizing radiation leaves a unique permanent signature in the genome. Intrachromosomal rearrangements or deletions are produced much more efficiently by densely ionizing radiation than by chemical mutagens, x-rays, or endogenous aging processes. Until recently, such stable intrachromosomal aberrations have been very hard to detect, but a new chromosome band painting technique has made their detection practical. We report the detection and quantification of stable intrachromosomal aberrations in lymphocytes of healthy former nuclear-weapons workers who were exposed to plutonium many years ago. Even many years after occupational exposure, more than half the blood cells of the healthy plutonium workers contain large (>6 Mb) intrachromosomal rearrangements. The yield of these aberrations was highly correlated with plutonium dose to the bone marrow. The control groups contained very few such intrachromosomal aberrations. Quantification of this large-scale chromosomal damage in human populations exposed many years earlier will lead to new insights into the mechanisms and risks of cytogenetic damage.