Eli5 How do radioactive mutants get made?

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Everywhere I’ve researched has said that radiation just burns, but every time I look for images of what it does it completely contradicts this statement by showing me radioactive mutants… so where do they come from?

In: Earth Science

radioactive mutants are more sci-fi than reality. while exposure to ionizing radiation does damage cells (ie cause mutations), they are no where on the scale of growing a third eye or third arm. a heavy dose of ionizing radiation causes extreme damage (ie burns). whereas a low dose would cause less obvious damage/mutation, which might result in birth defects in the children, but still, nothing along the lines of hollywood “mutants”.

The expression of physical characteristics (eye color, height, etc.) is determined by a molecular “code” called DNA. DNA is a helical ladder of molecules, and the rungs of this ladder control how traits are expressed. Each time the affected cell replicates, this data is copied to new cells.

Radioactive substances emit tiny particles at tremendous speed. If these particles collide with the rungs of the ladder, the code is damaged. When an organism reproduces (provide it was not sterilized by the radiation), this faulty code is passed on to the offspring, resulting in mutations.

The kind of mutation you’re referring to is a very slow process that plays out over multiple generations. Mutant fish and the like, are the result of many life cycles with exposure to radiation. On an individual level, any single organism is most likely to die to the effects of extreme radiation exposure long before… growing a third eye or whatever.

Radiation can make mutants. And radiation can make people radioactive. So an area that is more radioactive would have both people that are themselves radioactive and (more) mutants.

There are different types of radiation. Light and FM radio and xrays are all radiation. But you’re talking about gamma radiation. The sort that makes a Geiger counter flip out and poisons you. What it actually does is penetrate right though you, cooking everything in it’s path a lot like a microwave oven. For most things, meh. But DNA is fragile. Without good blueprints on how to be cells, they get really stupid, die, or worse they refuse to die and start getting greedy. Or really really bad and they refuse to die while having a lot of kids. (Cancer).

If there’s enough radiation, you literally burn. Exactly like a microwave. Your corpse will be radioactive.

If there’s less radiation, but still fatal, you survive the burn and… too many of your cells are lobotomized.

If there’s less radiation, not quite fatal, a lot of your cells die, but enough survive to carry out the dead and recover. But enough are cancerous, or the blue-prints are damaged enough that they’re going to be cancerous. You yourself will be radioactive for a while. And your kids will likely be messed up because it also scrambled the DNA in your eggs, sperm, or sperm-factory. But hey, maybe they’ll have an extra arm or something useful.

More messed up. We’re actually all mutants. And our children inherit more mutations (more from fathers than mothers). Our code is robust though and we deal with the slop. But if there’s too many mutations, or mutations in a bad place, it messes up important stuff and you get the stereotypical deformed weirdo from Saturday morning cartoons. Maybe. It’s random.

What you’re talking about, the stereotypical radioactive mutant, is from areas that have been polluted with material emitting gamma radiation. Like Chernobyl. The elevated radiation impacts all life and increases the rate of mutation. [These](https://www.thoughtco.com/chernobyl-animal-mutations-4155348) are [real](https://www.dw.com/en/nuclear-accidents-make-mutant-bugs-and-birds/a-19098683) and [pretty horrifying](https://chernobylguide.com/chernobyl_mutations/#chernobyl-plant-mutations). And everything in the area is radioactive due to the plant spreading radioactive material everywhere.