In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Radioecology

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Radioecology of Natural Radioactivity
  • Mutational Effects
  • Exposure of Humans and Other Organisms to Radiation and Its Consequences
  • Publications and Citations of Studies on Radioecology
  • Studies of Chernobyl
  • Studies of Fukushima
  • Abnormalities in Sites with High Doses
  • Bystander Effects
  • Genomic Instability
  • Dose Estimation and Radioecology
  • Ionizing Radiation and Interspecific Interactions
  • Structure of Ecological Communities
  • Perspectives

Ecology Radioecology
Anders Pape Møller, Timothy A. Mousseau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0229


Historically, radioecology is a branch of radiation biology that focuses on the movement of radionuclides through the biosphere and thereby affects ecological processes, but also the composition and the functioning of ecosystems. Modern radioecology has expanded to include studies of the consequences of radiation for biological processes (e.g., adaptation and evolution) and organismal, population, and ecosystem endpoints (Mothersill and Seymour 2012, cited under Bystander Effects). Radioecology is the scientific discipline focusing on how radioactive substances interact with nature, the mechanisms responsible for migration of such substances, and the uptake of radioactive substances in individuals, in the food chain that is composed of these individuals, and in ecosystems that are composed of the populations of these different species. Radioecological research may consist of field experiments to ensure biological realism in experiments, designed field and laboratory experiments, and the development of predictive simulation and population models. This interdisciplinary science combines aspects from basic biology; traditional scientific fields such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and ecology; and applied aspects of radiation protection. Radioecological studies form the basis for estimating doses and assessing the consequences of radioactive pollution for the health of the environment, but ultimately also for all living organisms, including humans. While radiation may have broad-scale consequences for living beings, and for the future of the entire planet, radioecology constitutes, perhaps surprisingly, but a modest branch of research. We can most readily display this by listing the number of citations of scientific publications in radioecology and accompanying fields. The number of citations at Web of Science Core Collection, accessed 21 October 2022, in radioecology (900) is much smaller than other fields of biology, such as ecology (543,534), evolution (1,858,846), genomics (191,867), and genetics (645,554). This distribution of citations for different fields of biology, ecology, and radiation biology implies that radioecology is relatively undeveloped when compared with these other major fields. That said, there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of publications following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and an even greater increase following the Fukushima accident of 2011, suggesting a growing interest in this field. Additionally, we provide a list of five fields of radioecology that potentially could be particularly productive and hence impact the distribution of overall citation scores within and among fields. The authors gratefully acknowledge Gennadi Milinevsky and Igor Chizhevsky for logistic support and help in organizing fieldwork in Ukraine, and Isao Nishiumi and Keisuke Ueda for help with field work in Fukushima. The authors received funding from the CNRS (France), the University of South Carolina, the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, and the US Fulbright Program to conduct their research.

Historical Background

The study of radioactivity (a term originally coined by Marie Curie), but also, later, our knowledge of ionizing radiation, was dominated by the cluster of the five Nobel Prize winners in Paris, France, at the beginning of the last century. Henri Becquerel detected evidence of radioactivity and subsequently received a Nobel Prize for his research in the same year as Marie and Pierre Curie. Marie Curie specialized in physics and had an outstanding knowledge of the theory of radioactivity. She received two Nobel Prizes in the fields of radioactivity and the treatment of neoplasms. Pierre Curie covered a range of scientific disciplines, including physics and crystallography, magnetism, and radioactivity. Together with Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel, he contributed to making significant developments in radioactivity and received, with these two colleagues, a joint Nobel Prize in 1903. These studies mainly dealt with radioactivity, but never directly dealt with radioecology except for ecology in its broadest sense of the word, such as when considering the impact of abiotic factors such as ionizing radiation on cancer. Among the following generation, Hermann Joseph Muller was a geneticist specializing in the physiological and genetic effects of radiation (see Muller 1958). He received a Nobel Prize for his studies and his contributions to the study of mutation and mutagenesis. His studies today still form the basis for our current knowledge of studies of mutation, mutagenesis, and the mutation law of evolution.

  • Muller, Hermann Joseph. 1958. Evolution by mutation. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 64:137–160.

    DOI: 10.1090/S0002-9904-1958-10191-3

    A review of Muller’s ideas about mutations as a mechanism in evolution.

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