Causes of Mutation and DNA Damage- Irradiation

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  • 0:01 Mutations
  • 0:35 Radiation
  • 2:35 Mutations by Ionizing…
  • 4:44 Mutations by UV Light
  • 6:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katy Metzler

Katy teaches biology at the college level and did her Ph.D. work on infectious diseases and immunology.

By now, you know what mutations are and what effects they can cause, but how do mutations happen? In this lesson, learn about one important cause of mutations, irradiation.


This little guy is a mutant.

Mutation is caused by DNA changes

That means that his DNA has been changed in such a way that, well, he's just not normal anymore. But how did this happen?

Mutations, or changes in DNA, can happen in a couple of different ways. Two major causes of mutations are irradiation and chemical mutagens. Irradiation is exposure to radiation and chemical mutagens are chemicals that cause changes to DNA sequences. In this lesson, we'll learn about how radiation exposure can cause mutations and even cancer.


Radioactivity and radiation are scary words - you probably associate them with accidents that can happen at nuclear power plants and a pretty harsh type of cancer treatment. But did you know that even in our normal, everyday lives, we're constantly experiencing radiation?

Radiation comes from many different sources, including the sun, other cosmic rays from outer space, X-rays at the doctor's office and at the airport security screening area, and even cell phones, microwaves and TV sets. You may also have had your home tested for radon, a natural source of radiation that comes from uranium in the soil and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking.

Whoa! How do we even stay alive in the face of all this radiation? Well, first of all, not all radiation is harmful. And we're usually only exposed to the harmful kinds of radiation in very low doses.

Let's look at the different types of radiation. There's ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation, as you might imagine, is a high-energy kind of radiation that causes ions and free radicals to form. The radiation has such high energy that it can knock an atom's electrons out of their normal orbit.

That atom was just sitting around, minding its own business, but now it's an ion or a free radical, and it can go on to cause lots of problems, such as breaking covalent bonds in other molecules. We'll come back to that in a minute. Examples of ionizing radiation are X-rays, gamma rays and alpha radiation, which is the kind of radiation that comes from the decay of radioactive elements.

Non-ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is much less harmful because the rays carry much less energy. Radio waves, light and even heat are examples of non-ionizing radiation. For the most part, these kinds of radiation do not cause any damage. However, ultraviolet light is a kind of non-ionizing radiation that can be harmful - it can cause mutations in DNA.

Mutations by Ionizing Radiation

All right, let's look at how ionizing radiation can cause DNA mutations. Like we just talked about, ionizing radiation causes normal atoms to turn into ions and free radicals, which are charged particles that can go on to break covalent bonds in other molecules. What are covalent bonds again? They are chemical bonds that hold molecules together. Covalent bonds are found all over the place; they hold the Hs and the Os together in water, H2O, for example.

Covalent bonds also hold DNA together. The backbones of the two DNA strands are made of nucleotides linked together by covalent bonds. So, if ionizing radiation comes along and breaks these bonds, we have a big problem: the DNA will be chopped up into tiny little pieces! The cell will try to repair these DNA breaks, but just like Humpty Dumpty, who broke into a million tiny pieces when he fell off a wall, it is very difficult for the cell to correctly put all those DNA pieces back together again.

Inevitably, some mistakes may be made, and these mistakes are mutations because they change the DNA sequence. This means that ionizing radiation can cause mutations in cells that are deep inside of us, not just the cells on the surface of our bodies. These mutations can eventually lead to cancer; ionizing radiation is known to cause leukemia and thyroid cancer, just to name a few.

But ionizing radiation is not only a bad thing! We can sometimes use it to our advantage. For example, you may have heard of treating cancer with radiation therapy. The goal of radiation therapy is to cause so many mutations in cancer cells' DNA that the tumor cells will die because of the damage. Of course, radiation damages healthy cells too, so doctors must take care to limit the exposure of a patient's normal cells to the radiation.

Another use for ionizing radiation is to sterilize foods and medical equipment. Gamma rays and X-rays are commonly used to kill off any microbial contaminants. Of course, we can only use types of radiation that disappear quickly, not longer-lasting forms of radiation that would make our food radioactive!

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