A Moment of Science

Cockroaches V. Radiation: Who Wins?

We've all heard rumors that cockroaches can survive, well, anything. But, could they survive nuclear war?

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Photo: Charles Tilford (Flickr)

This is a hissing cockroach. Cockroaches can survive extreme conditions such as radiation.

You may have heard that cockroaches can survive nuclear war. Have you wondered if there is any truth to this?

Well, they couldn’t survive the heat of a nuclear blast at ground zero, but their resistance to radiation may surprise you. In fact, most insects are much more resistant to ionizing radiation than mammals.

Radiation Grays

Radiation is measured in units called Grays. Doses as low as three to six Grays were fatal to humans in Hiroshima and Chernobyl. By comparison, some adult cockroaches have survived doses up to nine-hundred Grays! That’s more than 150 times the lethal dose for humans!

Cockroaches Aren’t The Champs…

But get this–cockroaches are radiation wimps compared to some other insects. Adult fruit flies have survived doses of 1600 Grays, and some ant species can handle doses up to 2250 Grays.

How Do They Handle The Radiation?

We don’t really know what gives insects so much better radiation resistance than us. Radiation penetrates their cells as well as it does ours. Scientists suspect that one reason could be that insect cells usually contain fewer chromosomes, and so less DNA, than mammal cells.

Since radiation poisoning is the result of destruction or mutation of DNA, having relatively less DNA in your cells may make it easier for those cells to survive radiation exposure.

Read More: Effects of Gamma Radiation on Some Insects Affecting Man (Journal of Economic Entomology)

Next Time: See what happens when cockroaches are faced with global warming…

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