Plutonium gets taken up by our cells much as iron does, even though there’s far less of it to go around.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University have identified a new biological pathway by which plutonium finds its way into mammalian cells. The researchers learned that, to get into cells, plutonium acts like a “Trojan horse,” duping a special membrane protein that is typically responsible for taking up iron.
This discovery may help enhance the safety of workers who deal with plutonium, as well as show the way to new “bio-inspired” approaches for separating radioactive elements from other metals in used nuclear fuel.
Because the bodies of mammals have evolved no natural ability to recognize plutonium—the element was first produced in 1941—scientists were curious to know the cellular mechanisms responsible for its retention in the body. The researchers exposed adrenal cells from rats to minute quantities of plutonium to see how the cells accumulated the radioactive material.