Quantitative Modeling of Microbial Population Responses to Chronic Irradiation Combined with Other Stressors

Shuryak, Igor; Dadachova, Ekaterina

Microbial population responses to combined effects of chronic irradiation and other stressors (chemical contaminants, other sub-optimal conditions) are important for ecosystem functioning and bioremediation in radionuclide-contaminated areas. Quantitative mathematical modeling can improve our understanding of these phenomena. To identify general patterns of microbial responses to multiple stressors in radioactive environments, we analyzed three data sets on: (1) bacteria isolated from soil contaminated by nuclear waste at the Hanford site (USA); (2) fungi isolated from the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant (Ukraine) buildings after the accident; (3) yeast subjected to continuous γ-irradiation in the laboratory, where radiation dose rate and cell removal rate were independently varied. We applied generalized linear mixed-effects models to describe the first two data sets, whereas the third data set was amenable to mechanistic modeling using differential equations. Machine learning and information-theoretic approaches were used to select the best-supported formalism(s) among biologically-plausible alternatives. Our analysis suggests the following: (1) Both radionuclides and co-occurring chemical contaminants (e.g. NO2) are important for explaining microbial responses to radioactive contamination. (2) Radionuclides may produce non-monotonic dose responses: stimulation of microbial growth at low concentrations vs. inhibition at higher ones. (3) The extinction-defining critical radiation dose rate is dramatically lowered by additional stressors. (4) Reproduction suppression by radiation can be more important for determining the critical dose rate, than radiation-induced cell mortality. In conclusion, the modeling approaches used here on three diverse data sets provide insight into explaining and predicting multi-stressor effects on microbial communities: (1) the most severe effects (e.g. extinction) on microbial populations may occur when unfavorable environmental conditions (e.g. fluctuations of temperature and/or nutrient levels) coincide with radioactive contamination; (2) an organism’s radioresistance and bioremediation efficiency in rich laboratory media may be insufficient to carry out radionuclide bioremediation in the field—robustness against multiple stressors is needed.

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Center for Radiological Research
Public Library of Science
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March 14, 2016