Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Study may help slay ’Yellow Monster’

10.04.2006
Research pioneers understanding of uranium toxicity

Low-grade uranium ore is nicknamed "yellowcake" for its color and powdered consistency. The Navajo have another name: Leetso, or "yellow monster."

The yellow monster surfaced on the Navajo Nation with uranium mining that started in the 1940s and continued for the next several decades. In its aftermath came illnesses such as lung cancer among mine workers and worries about environmental contamination among people who live on that land.

The Navajos believe you must gain knowledge of a monster to slay it and restore nature’s balance. Northern Arizona University biochemist Diane Stearns and her Navajo students are not only gaining knowledge, they are adding to that knowledge with new discoveries about uranium.

The fact that uranium, as a radioactive metal, can damage DNA is well documented. But what Stearns and her collaborators recently have found is that uranium can also damage DNA as a heavy metal, independent of its radioactive properties.

Stearns and her team are the first to show that when cells are exposed to uranium, the uranium binds to DNA and the cells acquire mutations. When uranium attaches to DNA, the genetic code in the cells of living organisms, it can change that code. As a result, the DNA can make the wrong protein or wrong amounts of protein, which affects how the cells grow. Some of these cells can grow to become cancer.

"Essentially, if you get a heavy metal stuck on DNA, you can get a mutation," Stearns explained. Other heavy metals are known to bind to DNA, but Stearns and her colleagues are the first to identify this trait with uranium. Their results were published recently in the journals Mutagenesis and Molecular Carcinogenesis.

Their findings have far-reaching implications for people living near abandoned mine tailings in the Four Corners area of the Southwest and for war-torn countries and the military, which uses depleted uranium for anti-tank weapons, tank armor and ammunition rounds. Depleted uranium is what is left over when most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed.

"The health effects of uranium really haven’t been studied since the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb in the early 1940s). But now there is more interest in the health effects of depleted uranium. People are asking questions now," Stearns said.

The questions include whether there is a connection between exposure to depleted uranium and Gulf War Syndrome or to increased cancers and birth defects in the Middle East. Stearns said it is estimated that more than 300 tons of depleted uranium were used during the first Gulf War. Military uses of depleted uranium in weapons continue today.

Closer to home, questions continue to be asked about environmental exposure to uranium from mine tailings that dot the landscape across the Navajo Nation.

"When the uranium mining boom crashed in the ’80s, it really crashed and there wasn’t much cleanup," Stearns said. Estimates put the number of abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation at more than 1,100.

NAU senior Hertha Woody grew up on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, N.M. Before joining Stearns’ research group, Woody said she was not very aware of heavy metal contamination of soil and water from a large uranium tailing pile near her hometown. But now she wonders about the ongoing health problems of her uncle who worked in the uranium mine at Shiprock. And she worries about others living in the area.

"My parents still live there and drink the water," she noted.

There’s another Navajo word that Woody shares. It is hozho, which relates to harmony, balance and beauty. Woody explained that the yellow monster disrupts hozho and that uranium should remain in the ground to ensure balance. In fact, in the spring of 2005, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., signed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, which bans uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation.

Woody said she has learned a great deal and not just in the realm of science. "It opens up doors and windows everywhere else," she said, noting that the work has raised her awareness about mine safety, tribal issues and reclamation efforts.

"When we first heard of the yellow monster, it was scary and not much was understood until the research began and it was passed on to the people through booklets and talks at the chapter houses," said Sheryl Martinez, a junior in NAU’s nursing program and another member of Stearns’ research group. Martinez, also a native of Shiprock, hopes to return to her community and put her knowledge to work after graduation.

The funding for Stearns’ work is tied to improving health among Native American communities. Stearns is the NAU principal investigator of a grant jointly awarded to NAU and the Arizona Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. Louise Canfield is the principal investigator on the grant for the Arizona Cancer Center. Collectively, these two grants comprise the Native American Cancer Research Partnership, a consortium of cancer researchers and educators at NAU and the Arizona Cancer Center. NACRP is one of only five such partnerships in the nation and the only one focused on Native American issues.

"The data on Native Americans for cancer evidence is very poor," Stearns said. "Navajo and Hopi may not get cancer to a greater extent, but the survival rate is lower than the general population." Stearns said the lower survival rate might be more the result of limited access to care or cultural boundaries that may prevent people from seeking care.

A goal of the partnership is to address these disparities by training Native students for cancer-related careers.

In this way, Stearns and her students can help slay the yellow monster, whether on the Navajo Nation or abroad.

Lisa Nelson | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nau.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Not of Divided Mind
19.01.2017 | Hertie-Institut für klinische Hirnforschung (HIH)

nachricht CRISPR meets single-cell sequencing in new screening method
19.01.2017 | CeMM Forschungszentrum für Molekulare Medizin der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New Study Will Help Find the Best Locations for Thermal Power Stations in Iceland

19.01.2017 | Earth Sciences

Not of Divided Mind

19.01.2017 | Life Sciences

Molecule flash mob

19.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>