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Biological Effects of Radiation

Course Number: 572


Radiation biology is the study of the effects of radiation on biological systems. When radiating energy and living cells interact, energy transfer leads to one of two phenomena: excitation or ionization. Low-energy nonionizing radiation, e.g., ultraviolet radiation, microwaves, and extra-low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, causes molecular excitation. Excitation occurs when an electron changes its energy level without being ejected from the atom's orbit.1-3

Ionizing radiation s sufficiently energetic to eject an electron from an atom’s orbit resulting in an ion pair (the electron and the rest of the atom), i.e., causes ionization.1,4,5Particulate radiation and electromagnetic radiation can cause ionization. Particulate radiation is a stream of atomic or subatomic particles such as α-particles and neutrons produced by nuclear disintegration; high energy electromagnetic radiation includes δ-rays and x-rays (photons).1,5-8

Radioactive substances emit gamma-rays. X-ray photons are man-made. They are produced by x-ray units when fast-moving electrons interact with tungsten atoms.9 When photons with sufficient energy liberate orbital electrons from atoms and their corresponding molecules, the creation of unpaired electrons results in the formation of highly reactive free radicals. Free radicals in a biological system can damage cellular proteins by altering their chemical structure.1,5-8,10,11