A major problem of the Atomic Age: the effect of radiation on the human species. Scandinavian scientists may have recognized this last week when a committee of them awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology to 55-year-old Professor Hermann J. Muller of Indiana University, leading authority on radioactive mutations. Nearly 20 years ago he discovered that fruit flies treated with X rays produced "mutated" (changed) offspring. The discovery made him famous among biologists, but the general public never took it personally. No one dreamed that in less than a generation the human race might be treated with X rays, and mutate too.
Every human being is constantly subjected to bombardment by gamma rays (X rays) from natural sources such as cosmic rays. These do no visible damage, for the body is accustomed to the low normal "level of radiation." But when a gamma ray hits the nucleus of a spermatozoon or ovum (the reproductive cells which unite to form a new individual), it may damage one of the thousands of "genes" which carry hereditary characteristics from one generation to the next. This may produce a "mutation." The child may differ slightly or radically from its parents, or the difference may lie concealed until it is brought out by inbreeding in a later generation.
Many biologists believe that such mutations are largely responsible for evolution. If so, the human species, and most other species too, may be slated for an evolutionary speedup.
More Redheads? When the Atomic Age really gets rolling, with atomic power plants producing much of the world's energy, the "level of radiation" will rise. People living near the plants will get more gamma rays through their gonads. So will people farther away, affected by radioactive by-products from the plants' exhausts. Possible result: more redheaded children will be born in black-haired families, and more mutations will lurk in the germ plasm to scandalize future neighbors.
Whether this will be good or bad is not at all clear. In Washington last week, small, blue-eyed Dr. Muller, glowing with the stimulation of his newly won Nobel Prize, gave a pessimistic interview. "Most mutations are bad," said he. "In fact, good ones are so rare that we can consider them all as bad." It would be "fortunate," he thought, if all those exposed to an atomic explosion (such as the people of Hiroshima) were to be made permanently sterile.
Super-Hiroshimans. Not all authorities were as pessimistic as Dr. Muller. A four-man U.S. commission was about to leave for Japan to observe the genetic effect of the bomb's radiation on the people of Hiroshima. Some geneticists believed that the next Hiroshima generation or so would show many bad mutations. But most would be eliminated by the law of the survival of the fittest. The few superior mutations would survive to improve the race.
Hiroshima was only one laboratory for studying the biological implications of the Atomic Age. The U.S. center would be Oak Ridge, where the U.S. Public Health Service is setting up an elaborate research program. Its principal object: to determine the effect of the new radiations on living cells, including reproductive cells. Out of its work might come refutation (or confirmation) of Dr. Muller's gloomy prophecies.