Biomolecular radiation damage

Last revised by Andrew Murphy on 29 Mar 2020

Biomolecular radiation damage may result from exposure of biological tissues to ionizing radiation from direct exposure, or via Compton scattering.

Mechanism of tissue radiation damage

Direct effect
  • if a biological macromolecule (e.g. DNA, RNA, protein) becomes ionized or excited by an ionizing particle passing through or near it
Indirect effect
  • the result of radiation interactions within the medium (e.g. cytoplasm) which create reactive chemical species (radicals) that in turn interact with the target molecules

Radical formation

The energetic photons of x-rays and γ-rays are transferred by collision to orbital electrons in the absorbing tissue. These orbital electrons may be excited (excitation) or ejected (ionization), and radicals (a.k.a. free radicals) form as a result. Radicals are uncharged atoms/molecules that possess an unpaired valence electron.

An unpaired electron lends radicals a significant chemical reactivity and can bind efficiently to other molecules' electrons. Radicals produced via radiation are most commonly seen in water as hydrogen and hydroxyl radicals. 

In some cases, radicals binding with other molecules can cause more radicals that again bind with other molecules. This chain reaction effect can result in significant alterations to organic material.

If this occurs amidst molecules that are critical to cellular metabolism, the fundamental functionality of the cell is at risk. Furthermore, radicals can affect nucleic acid molecules leading to cell mutation or cell death (cell death is most likely the result of DNA double-strand breaks). 

The vast majority of radiation-induced damage is mediated by this indirect action on water molecules (the body is 70-85% water).

ADVERTISEMENT: Supporters see fewer/no ads

Updating… Please wait.

 Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

 Thank you for updating your details.