Radiation-induced versus endogenous DNA damage: possible effect of inducible protective responses in mitigating endogenous damage

Hum Exp Toxicol. 2003 Jun;22(6):290-306; discussion 307, 315-7, 319-23. doi: 10.1191/0960327103ht365oa.


Ionizing radiation (IR) causes damage to DNA that is apparently proportional to absorbed dose. The incidence of radiation-induced cancer in humans unequivocally rises with the value of absorbed doses above about 300 mGy, in a seemingly linear fashion. Extrapolation of this linear correlation down to zero-dose constitutes the linear-no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis of radiation-induced cancer incidence. The corresponding dose-risk correlation, however, is questionable at doses lower than 300 mGy. Non-radiation induced DNA damage and, in consequence, oncogenic transformation in non-irradiated cells arises from a variety of sources, mainly from weak endogenous carcinogens such as reactive oxygen species (ROS) as well as from micronutrient deficiencies and environmental toxins. In order to relate the low probability of radiation-induced cancer to the relatively high incidence of non-radiation carcinogenesis, especially at low-dose irradiation, the quantitative and qualitative differences between the DNA damages from non-radiation and radiation sources need to be addressed and put into context of physiological mechanisms of cellular protection. This paper summarizes a co-operative approach by the authors to answer the questions on the quantitative and qualitative DNA damages from non-radiation sources, largely endogenous ROS, and following exposure to low doses of IR. The analysis relies on published data and justified assumptions and considers the physiological capacity of mammalian cells to protect themselves constantly by preventing and repairing DNA damage. Furthermore, damaged cells are susceptible to removal by apoptosis or the immune system. The results suggest that the various forms of non-radiation DNA damage in tissues far outweigh corresponding DNA damage from low-dose radiation exposure at the level of, and well above, background radiation. These data are examined within the context of low-dose radiation induction of cellular signaling that may stimulate cellular protection systems over hours to weeks against accumulation of DNA damage. The particular focus is the hypothesis that these enhanced and persisting protective responses reduce the steady state level of non-radiation DNA damage, thereby reducing deleterious outcomes such as cancer and aging. The emerging model urgently needs rigorous experimental testing, since it suggests, importantly, that the LNT hypothesis is invalid for complex adaptive systems such as mammalian organisms.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / radiation effects
  • Cytoprotection / physiology
  • DNA / radiation effects*
  • DNA Damage*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / metabolism*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism*


  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • DNA