Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation on Living Cells

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Some forms of electromagnetic radiation can penetrate into your cells and cause a lot of damage to your DNA. In this lesson, learn more about exactly what can happen if you are exposed to radiation.

A Day in the Sun

Liam went to the beach with his friends one day and spent several hours playing in the water and enjoying the sunny weather. When he got back home, however, he noticed that his skin had turned a bright shade of pink, and it felt a little bit hot. After a few hours, it was even redder and started to hurt. After a day at the beach, Liam had come home with a bad sunburn. What caused Liam's skin to turn red and hot? It happened because electromagnetic radiation from the sun caused damage to the cells in his skin.

After a day at the beach, you may come home with a sunburn, caused by radiation from the sun.
After a day at the beach, you may come home with a sunburn, caused by radiation from the sun.

Light, including the light produced by the sun, is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Light waves do not have enough energy to penetrate into your skin, so they don't cause any damage to your cells. However, the sun also produces other forms of electromagnetic radiation that are invisible to human eyes. Ultraviolet light is a form of radiation that has a higher frequency than visible light. This means it also has a little bit more energy than visible light and can, therefore, penetrate into the top layers of your skin, causing damage to your cells and leading to a painful sunburn.

Cellular Damage Caused by Radiation

While a sunburn is not a pleasant experience, the damage caused to living cells by electromagnetic radiation can sometimes be a lot worse. Inside every cell, there are chromosomes that contain all the information that tells your cells how to function and reproduce. Each chromosome is made up of a long chain of DNA.

DNA inside living cells can be easily damaged by radiation
DNA inside living cells can be easily damaged by radiation

When cells are exposed to electromagnetic radiation, these DNA strands can be broken. This can cause lots of problems. If DNA is damaged, it can impair the ability of living cells to function the way they should. Changes in DNA caused by radiation can also be passed on when the cell divides, and these DNA changes can multiply and eventually cause cancer.

Although ultraviolet radiation can only penetrate into the top layers of your skin, it can still do a lot of damage. Over time, you can get skin cancer and your skin may develop deep wrinkles, making you look a lot older than you really are. Other types of radiation, like X-rays and gamma rays, can have even more profound effects.

Cellular Death Caused by Radiation

X-rays, which have more energy than UV rays, can penetrate deeper into your body. They can pass right through soft tissues, but not through hard tissue like bone. This makes them really useful for imaging the inside of your body. Usually, short, limited exposure to X-rays does not cause much cellular damage, but if you are exposed to X-rays for a long period of time, they can cause DNA damage, too. Gamma rays have even more energy than X-rays and are, therefore, even more dangerous. Even short exposures to gamma rays can cause significant cell damage.

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