There is an urgent need for rapid, accurate, and sensitive diagnostic platforms to confirm exposure to radiation and estimate the dose absorbed by individuals subjected to acts of radiological terrorism, nuclear power plant accidents, or nuclear warfare. Clinical symptoms and physical dosimeters, even when available, do not provide adequate diagnostic information to triage and treat life-threatening radiation injuries. We hypothesized that intestinal microbiota act as novel biomarkers of prior radiation exposure. Adult male Wistar rats (n = 5/group) received single or multiple fraction total-body irradiation of 10.0 Gy and 18.0 Gy, respectively. Fresh fecal pellets were obtained from each rat prior to (day 0) and at days 4, 11, and 21 post-irradiation. Fecal microbiota composition was determined using microarray and quantitative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) analyses. The radiation exposure biomarkers consisted of increased 16S rRNA levels of 12 members of the Bacteroidales, Lactobacillaceae, and Streptococcaceae after radiation exposure, unchanged levels of 98 Clostridiaceae and Peptostreptococcaceae, and decreased levels of 47 separate Clostridiaceae members; these biomarkers are present in human and rat feces. As a result of the ubiquity of these biomarkers, this biomarker technique is non-invasive; microbiota provide a sustained level of reporting signals that are increased several-fold following exposure to radiation, and intestinal microbiota that are unaffected by radiation serve as internal controls. We conclude that intestinal microbiota serve as novel biomarkers of prior radiation exposure, and may be able to complement conventional chromosome aberrational analysis to significantly enhance biological dose assessments.

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