Letter | Published:

Fitness loss and germline mutations in barn swallows breeding in Chernobyl


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.

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We thank A. A. Tokar for logistic support in Ukraine; the curators of museum collections in Kiev, Ukraine, and Milan, Florence and Rome, Italy for access to specimens; and N. Saino for providing phenotypic data from his barn swallow population in 1996. A.P.M. was supported by the Danish Natural Science Research Council, H.E. by the Swedish Research Councils for Natural Sciences, and for Agriculture and Forestry and G.L. by the Elis Wides Fund (Swedish Ornithological Society).

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Correspondence to Hans Ellegren or Anders Pape Møller.

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Further reading

Figure 1: Examples of microsatellite germline mutations for barn swallow loci in the Chernobyl population.
Figure 2: Distribution of changes in the number of repeat units between mutant and progenitor alleles at the barn swallow microsatellite loci HrU6 and HrU9.


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