Nanoscopic aspects of radiobiological damage: Fragmentation induced by secondary low-energy electrons

Mass Spectrom Rev. Sep-Oct 2002;21(5):349-69. doi: 10.1002/mas.10034.


Low-energy electrons (LEEs) are produced in large quantities in any type of material irradiated by high-energy particles. In biological media, these electrons can fragment molecules and lead to the formation of highly reactive radicals and ions. The results of recent experiments performed on biomolecular films bombarded with LEEs under ultra-high vacuum conditions are reviewed in the present article. The major type of experiments, which measure fragments produced in such films as a function of incident electron energy (0.1-45 eV), are briefly described. Examples of the results obtained from DNA films are summarized along with those obtained from the fragmentation of elementary components of the DNA molecule (i.e., thin solid films of H(2)O, DNA bases, sugar analogs, and oligonucleotides) and proteins. By comparing the results of these different experiments, it is possible to determine fundamental mechanisms that are involved in the dissociation of biomolecules and the production of single- and double-strand breaks in DNA, and to show that base damage is dependent on the nature of the bases and on their sequence context. Below 15 eV, electron resonances (i.e., the formation of transient anions) play a dominant role in the fragmentation of all biomolecules investigated. These transient anions fragment molecules by decaying into dissociative electronically excited states or by dissociating into a stable anion and a neutral radical. These fragments usually initiate other reactions with nearby molecules, causing further chemical damage. The damage caused by transient anions is dependent on the molecular environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA / chemistry
  • DNA / radiation effects
  • DNA Damage / radiation effects*
  • Electrons / adverse effects*
  • Particle Accelerators
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteins / radiation effects*
  • Radiation, Ionizing


  • Proteins
  • DNA