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What is Radiobiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Radiobiology is a branch of biophysics which is focused on studying the effects of radiation on living cells. While many people think of nuclear radiation when they hear the term “radiation,” this isn't quite accurate, as radiation is simply energy emitted by something, such as the heat which radiates off a heater in the cold winter months. Radiobiologists certainly study nuclear radiation, but they also look at radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light.

There are a number of topics of study in radiobiology. Some researchers are interested in harmful ionizing radiation, looking at how it affects living living cells, and at which doses is becomes dangerous. Others are interested in how visible light interacts with cells, as seen for example in plant cells which use light in photosynthesis, and researchers are also interested in non-ionizing radiation like the radio waves which are passing through your body at this very moment.

Work in this field usually requires an advanced degree, because researchers need to be knowledgeable about biology and physics in order to perform radiobiology research. They can also apply their research in a number of different ways. Some researchers are interested in the medical applications of radiobiology, developing therapeutic uses for radiation which can include the development of surgical lasers, medical imaging equipment, and the use of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of cancer, in which the harmful properties of ionizing radiation are harnessed for good.

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Other researchers are interested in the sources of natural radiation present on Earth and the ways in which living organisms have adapted to use or avoid various sources of radiation. Research can also include studies of nuclear accidents and the damage they cause to living organisms, as well as research to determine the absorption rates of different types of living cells. Radiobiology is also involved in the development of radiation shielding technology which is designed to protect living cells, such as the lead aprons worn by x-ray technicians.

This field is tremendously diverse and there is a lot of interesting material to study. A number of universities offer radiobiology degrees to their students, with varying areas of focus. Students who are interested in this field may want to spend some time visiting different programs to get an idea of the kind of research they do. Many schools are happy to offer tours to students of all ages who are interested in radiobiology.

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pastanaga
Post 3

I've always found it amazing how some plants and animals manage to overcome radiation.

There were ginkgo trees in Japan close to ground zero of the nuclear attacks which regrew their leaves within a year and are still alive today.

On the other hand you have the animals and plants surrounding Chernobyl which are still being affected. Some species more than others, which of course is affecting their ecosystem, because it becomes balanced in a different way.

Although I believe that radiobiology is concerned with the effects on cells by radiation, they must also be interested in what that can do to the creature and to the ecosystem it inhabits.

croydon
Post 2

@irontoenail - Actually, while they haven't ever seen a link between brain cancer and cell phone use, they have seen that it lowers sperm count. The radiation from your cell phone, when put close to sperm will kill them off. And with the new bluetooth head sets, where do you end up putting your cellphone?

I don't know if they think it causes long term damage. Heck, if it doesn't maybe this will turn out to be a great new form of birth control! At any rate, this is the kind of think a radiobiologist studies. Not all of it is fun in the sunshine.

irontoenail
Post 1

This is such an important field of science that most people don't really think about much. Or, if they do think about it, it they think about how cell phones might cause cancer or something urban legend like that.

But skin cancer is a real thing and something that affects growing numbers of people. Not just because the current fashion is to look tanned, although that doesn't help.

Unfortunately, even though the ozone layer isn't getting thinner, it's not recovering overnight, so radiation from the sun is a very real concern. And sunscreens are still not perfect. This kind of molecular radiobiology research is really important to the future health of us all.

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