Radiobiology: Low Dose Radiation Research

The Low Dose Radiation Research Program supports competitive peer-reviewed research aimed at informing the development of future national radiation risk policy for the public and the workplace. The Program supports the Department of Energy's missions in energy and environment and contributes to understanding of radiation-related health impacts at and around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Program Description

The Low Dose Program is unique within the U.S. government in supporting experimental radiation biology research that studies the effects of very low dose exposures. Since its beginning in 1999, the focus of research has been to study cellular and molecular responses to doses of X- or gamma- radiation that are at or near current workplace exposure limits; in general, for total radiation doses that are less than 100 millisievert (10 rem). Currently about 40% of Program funds support research projects at academic institutions and the remaining 60% support program-project research at three DOE National Laboratories, LBNL, ORNL, and PNNL. An Investigators' Workshop is held yearly, and focused topical workshops are held as needed.

Program Funding Opportunity Announcements

Announcements are posted on the DOE Office of Science Grants and Contracts Website and at Information about preparing and submitting applications, as well as the DOE Office of Science merit review process, is available at the DOE Office of Science Grants and Contracts Website.

For current announcements visit BER Funding Opportunities.

Currently funded research studies focus on radio-adaptive responses, systems genetics of inter-individual variation, low dose and/or low dose-rate effects on: a) proteomic responses, b) the immune system, c) epigenetic regulation, and d) molecular and cellular hallmarks of aging. Several of the experimental projects include important mathematical/risk modeling components. The Low Dose Program is also supporting, through intra- and inter-agency efforts, a mortality study of the early U.S. workers of the nuclear age. The "Million U.S. Worker Study" builds on the investments made and foundations laid by researchers and government agencies over the past 30-40 years. These efforts had established early worker cohorts that can now provide answers to questions on the lifetime human health risks associated with low-level radiation exposures.

Why the Program's Research is Important

The Program supports the Department of Energy's missions in energy and environment. It also contributes to understanding of radiation-related health impacts in and around a facility such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Program research is providing high-value scientific data for input in determining health risks from exposures to low levels of radiation. Performing measurements at low doses is critically relevant because radiation exposures associated with human activity are almost always very low dose and/or low dose-rate exposures. Human exposures are mainly from medical diagnostic tests, but exposures might also occur during waste cleanup, environmental isolation of materials associated with nuclear weapons and nuclear power production, catastrophic natural events, or possibly terrorism incidents. A strong scientific underpinning for our risk regulation is critical to adequately and appropriately protect people while making the most effective use of our national resources.

Data Sharing Policy

Low Dose Program investigators are expected to effectively communicate research results through publication in peer-reviewed journals, and when possible to provide data in a format amenable to deposition in widely held databases. Investigators are also encouraged to communicate with the wider community of concerned persons, so that current thinking and public debate incorporate sound science.

Program Accomplishments

Research from DOE's Low Dose Program re-examines existing paradigms and provides the results that support the development of new, biological paradigms. One example that challenges an old assumption is the finding that exposure to a low vs. high dose of radiation results in both qualitatively as well as quantitatively different cellular and molecular responses, thus demonstrating non-linear response with respect to dose. Another is the finding that in addition to high-dose biological damage that may lead to cancer, very low dose radiation exposure may participate in beneficial biological outcomes by stimulation of our natural tissue surveillance mechanisms. These processes are shaped by physical exposure parameters that include dose, dose-rate and dose-distribution. The research has underscored the importance of the Low Dose Program's effort to study intact-tissue biological response to a stressor such as radiation exposure, rather than studying only the initial events within an individual cell. Low Dose investigators were responsible in 2006 for initiation of a highly valued series of International Systems Radiation Biology workshops. Finally, the Low Dose Program has taken a leading role on the world stage in arguing for the critical need for greater communication and coordination between the fields of radiation biology and epidemiology.

As of March 2012, the Program has produced 737 peer-reviewed publications. Please visit the Program website for a list of publications and additional discussion of research findings and future directions.

Program Manager

Todd Anderson, Ph.D.
Biological Systems Science Division, SC-23.2
Department of Energy, GTN Bldg.
1000 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20585-1290
Phone: (301) 903-5469
Fax: (301) 903-0567