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17.5: Radiation

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    1. Ultraviolet Radiation

    The ultraviolet portion of the light spectrum includes all radiations with wavelengths from 100 nm to 400 nm. It has low wave-length and low energy. The microbicidal activity of ultraviolet (UV) light depends on the length of exposure: the longer the exposure the greater the cidal activity. It also depends on the wavelength of UV used. The most cidal wavelengths of UV light lie in the 260 nm - 270 nm range where it is absorbed by nucleic acid.

    In terms of its mode of action, UV light is absorbed by microbial DNA and causes adjacent thymine bases on the same DNA strand to covalently bond together, forming what are called thymine-thymine dimers (see Fig. \(\PageIndex{1}\)). As the DNA replicates, nucleotides do not complementary base pair with the thymine dimers and this terminates the replication of that DNA strand. However, most of the damage from UV radiation actually comes from the cell trying to repair the damage to the DNA by a process called SOS repair. In very heavily damaged DNA containing large numbers of thymine dimers, a process called SOS repair is activated as kind of a last ditch effort to repair the DNA. In this process, a gene product of the SOS system binds to DNA polymerase allowing it to synthesize new DNA across the damaged DNA. However, this altered DNA polymerase loses its proofreading ability resulting in the synthesis of DNA that itself now contains many misincorporated bases. In other words, UV radiation causes mutation and can lead to faulty protein synthesis. With sufficient mutation, bacterial metabolism is blocked and the organism dies. Agents such as UV radiation that cause high rates of mutation are called mutagens.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mutation as a Result of Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation. ( Copyright; Gary E. Kaiser, Ph.D. The Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville Campus CC-BY-3.0 )

    The effect of this improper base pairing may be reversed to some extent by exposing the bacteria to strong visible light immediately after exposure to the UV light. The visible light activates an enzyme that breaks the bond that joins the thymine bases, thus enabling correct complementary base pairing to again take place. This process is called photoreactivation.

    UV lights are frequently used to reduce the microbial populations in hospital operating rooms and sinks, aseptic filling rooms of pharmaceutical companies, in microbiological hoods, and in the processing equipment used by the food and dairy industries.

    An important consideration when using UV radiation is that it has very poor penetrating power. Only microorganisms on the surface of a material that are exposed directly to the radiation are susceptible to destruction and bacterial endospores are more resistant to ultraviolet radiation. UV radiation can also damage the eyes, cause burns, and cause mutation in cells of the skin.

    2. Ionizing Radiation

    Ionizing radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays, has much more energy and penetrating power than ultraviolet radiation. It ionizes water and other molecules to form radicals (molecular fragments with unpaired electrons) that can disrupt DNA molecules and proteins. It is often used to sterilize pharmaceuticals and disposable medical supplies such as syringes, surgical gloves, catheters, sutures, and petri plates. It can also be used to retard spoilage in seafoods, meats, poultry, and fruits.

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    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 17.5: Radiation is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gary Kaiser.

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