Mutant Butterflies/Cornelia Hesse-Honegger

Have you found yourself profoundly concerned about radioactive butterflies in recent months? It’s cool, I’m on it by way of GlobalPost.

I find it interesting that there’s been such a media flap over this. I suppose the symbolism of mutant insects flitting around vomiting smoke-stacks of nuclear hell stick in the craw of the public. On the record, I’m no anti-nuclear activist – but it’s interesting to contemplate the emotions and fears that these mutated animals evoke.

I attempted to dispel some of the confusion in this GlobalPost article, by calling up a certain Dr Joseph Rachlin of New York’s City College. Via his aggressively New York accent, I learned more about mutant butterflies than I had ever expected to learn. I thank him for that.

Mutant butterflies? What “radioactive” insects means for everyone else

Mutant butterflies are flitting around the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the public is — understandably — looking for answers. GlobalPost reported yesterday that some butterflies near the site of the Japanese meltdown, according to a recent study, are exhibiting some bizarre characteristics,including smaller wings, irregularly developed eyes, and malformed antennae.

The study, published in Nature, also found that pale grass blue butterflies appear to be passing abnormalities to their offspring.

But how worried should we be about this new development, and the possible effects of low-dose nuclear radiation on humans? GlobalPost contacted City University of New York biology professor Dr. Joseph Rachlin to find out more. 

What is a mutation, anyway? 

“A mutation by definition is a change in genetic structure,” said Rachlin. The butterflies, according to the study authors, are exhibiting germ-line mutations, which are hereditary. That’s different from a somatic mutation, which only affects the body and can’t be passed on to offspring.

“A genetic mutation can be positive, it can be negative, or it can be neutral, in the sense that it’s affecting — or not affecting — deleteriously the survivalship of the butterfly population,” Rachlin said, adding that there are actually more neutral mutations than negative in nature.

“The concerns you’re looking at are manifested at the population level,” said Rachlin of the Fukushima butterflies. “We don’t really care about what happens to an individual organism — unless it’s human.”

Read more at GlobalPost….

If you’re interested in mutant insects – and who isn’t! – I can’t recommend the beautiful work of Swiss science artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger strongly enough. She specializes in in painting and documenting insect mutations near nuclear sites, most famously at Chernobyl.

She was kind enough to respond to my e-mail vis a vis mutant butterflies lately. (Oh, the things I do for my craft. But isn’t it nice to be paid to research mutant butterflies!)

Q – I`ve read reports that insects are considered to be relatively immune to radiation – but I`ve also heard the opposite, especially regarding butterflies. Can you shine any light on this for me? 
A – As the scientist irradiate insects, mostly flies from the outside with high doses of x-rays they correlate from their studies to what is happening around nuclear power plants and the insects living there. But – insects in nature are exposed to a cocktail of radionuclides. so a comparison with the lab work is not possible unless they do as the Japanese scientists did, mainly irradiate also the food of the insects.
Low doses of radiation are considered harmless among the official scientists, which is purely political. I published my findings with Drosophila in Chernobyl fallout areas in Jan 1988 and have ever ben opposed by biologists in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Q – Why do you think the public is so horrified by these mutations in insects – especially butterflies, which are often considered something of a symbolic species? Should they be? Are you? 

A – Butterflies are dear to humans and this is why they are shocked, at least for some time. True bugs are less a symbol for a healthy Nature.

Q – Do you feel the mutations you document are grounds for cutting down on nuclear power use worldwide? Why or why not?

A -I cannot confirm they are mutations, because I cannot look at chromosomes ore genes. I am an artist and never a biologist offered to do this work. Yes all nuclear power plants, all depleted uranium ammunition all nuke bombs and all nuclear scientific institutes should be closed down and our main independent research should be – what do we do with the waste.

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