Considerable attention has been given to understanding the biological effects of low-dose ionizing radiation exposure at levels slightly above background. However, relatively few studies have been performed to examine the inverse, where natural background radiation is removed. The limited available data suggest that organisms exposed to sub-background radiation environments undergo reduced growth and an impaired capacity to repair genetic damage. Shielding from background radiation is inherently difficult due to high-energy cosmic radiation. SNOLAB, located in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, is a unique facility for examining the effects of sub-background radiation exposure. Originally constructed for astroparticle physics research, the laboratory is located within an active nickel mine at a depth of over 2,000 m. The rock overburden provides shielding equivalent to 6,000 m of water, thereby almost completely eliminating cosmic radiation. Additional features of the facility help to reduce radiological contamination from the surrounding rock. We are currently establishing a biological research program within SNOLAB: Researching the Effects of the Presence and Absence of Ionizing Radiation (REPAIR project). We hypothesize that natural background radiation is essential for life and maintains genomic stability, and that prolonged exposure to sub-background radiation environments will be detrimental to biological systems. Using a combination of whole organism and cell culture model systems, the effects of exposure to a sub-background environment will be examined on growth and development, as well as markers of genomic damage, DNA repair capacity and oxidative stress. The results of this research will provide further insight into the biological effects of low-dose radiation exposure as well as elucidate some of the processes that may drive evolution and selection in living systems. This Radiation Research focus issue contains reviews and original articles, which relate to the presence or absence of low-dose ionizing radiation exposure.
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Vol. 188 • No. 4.2