Can radiation cause beneficial mutation?

05 April 2012

Question

Mutation occurs quite naturally through mistakes made in copying your DNA. When your cells divide mutations introduce more variety into the genes of a species in terms of survival... this makes it more likely to survive and breed. (ref: AQA Science, Nelson Thornes p.112). My question is can nuclear radiation not only cause cancer but also possibly cause mutation so that future generations become better adapted to the environment?

Answer

The short answer is "yes!" - although large doses of radiation from something like an atomic bomb or nuclear power station explosion are obviously very bad, any type of lower-level radiation doesn't cause specifically "good" or "bad" mutations, it just causes changes. As we heard in last month's podcast, these random changes happen all the time and may or may not be passed on to the next generation. But if there is a selective pressure, then we see beneficial mutations start to spread through populations. It doesn't matter what causes them, only that they have to be passed on, so they'd originally have to arise in the sperm or egg-producing cells for humans and other animals.

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