Letters to Nature

Nature 389, 593-596 (9 October 1997) | doi:10.1038/39303; Received 3 June 1997; Accepted 4 August 1997

Fitness loss and germline mutations in barn swallows breeding in Chernobyl

Hans Ellegren1, Gabriella Lindgren1, Craig R. Primmer1 and Anders Pape Møller2

  1. Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 597, S-751 24 Uppsala, Sweden
  2. Laboratoire d'Ecologie, CNRS URA 258, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Bat. A, 7éme etage, 7, quai St Bernard, Case 237, F-75252 Paris Cedex 5, France

Correspondence to: Hans Ellegren1Anders Pape Møller2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to H.E. or A.P.M. (respective e-mail addresses: Email: hans.ellegren@bmc.uu.se or Email: anders.moller@snv.jussieu.fr).

The severe nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 resulted in the worst reported accidental exposure of radioactive material to free-living organisms1. Short-term effects on human populations inhabiting polluted areas include increased incidence of thyroid cancer2, infant leukaemia3, and congenital malformations in newborns4. Two recent studies5,6 have reported, although with some controversy7,8, that germline mutation rates were increased in humans and voles living close to Chernobyl, but little is known about the viability of the organisms affected9. Here we report an increased frequency of partial albinism, a morphological aberration associated with a loss of fitness, among barn swallows, Hirundo rustica, breeding close to Chernobyl. Heritability estimates indicate that mutations causing albinism were at least partly of germline origin. Furthermore, evidence for an increased germline mutation rate was obtained from segregation analysis at two hypervariable microsatellite loci, indicating that mutation events in barn swallows from Chernobyl were two- to tenfold higher than in birds from control areas in Ukraine and Italy.