In space, astronauts are exposed to radiation fields consisting of energetic protons and high atomic number, high-energy (HZE) particles at very low dose rates or fluences. Under these conditions, it is likely that, in addition to cells in an astronaut's body being traversed by ionizing radiation particles, unirradiated cells can also receive intercellular bystander signals from irradiated cells. Thus this study was designed to determine the dependence of DNA damage induction on dose at very low fluences of charged particles. Novel techniques to quantify particle fluence have been developed at the NASA Space Radiation Biology Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). The approach uses a large ionization chamber to visualize the radiation beam coupled with a scintillation counter to measure fluence. This development has allowed us to irradiate cells with 1 GeV/nucleon protons and iron ions at particle fluences as low as 200 particles/cm2 and quantify biological responses. Our results show an increased fraction of cells with DNA damage in both the irradiated population and bystander cells sharing medium with irradiated cells after low fluences. The fraction of cells with damage, manifest as micronucleus formation and 53BP1 focus induction, is about 2-fold higher than background at doses as low as ∼0.47 mGy iron ions (∼0.02 iron ions/cell) or ∼70 μGy protons (∼2 protons/cell). In the irradiated population, irrespective of radiation type, the fraction of damaged cells is constant from the lowest damaging fluence to about 1 cGy, above which the fraction of damaged cells increases with dose. In the bystander population, the level of damage is the same as in the irradiated population up to 1 cGy, but it does not increase above that plateau level with increasing dose. The data suggest that at fluences of high-energy protons or iron ions less than about 5 cGy, the response in irradiated cell populations may be dominated by the bystander response.
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