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Study may help slay 'Yellow Monster'

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. Deplet
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Source:Northern Arizona University


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