When the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl tragically exploded in 1986, the accident was considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Radiation killed hundreds of people, contaminated the soil and left the land barren. Most experts believed that the area would remain lifeless for generations.

But now just a quarter of a century later, scientists are returning to the site of the explosion — to plant soybeans and flax. Why?

Though Chernobyl and the nearby town of Pripyat remain ghost towns, scientists have nevertheless been surprised at how certain plants have recovered throughout the area. The plants have somehow adapted and, in some cases, even thrived despite the fact that the environment remains highly radioactive.

"It is just unbelievable how quickly this ecosystem has been able to adapt," Martin Hajduch from the Slovak Academy of Sciences told the BBC, who covered the story.

Dr. Hajduch is a member of a group of researchers who traveled to Chernobyl, beginning in 2007, to plant crops specifically for the purpose of studying this remarkable phenomenon. The team is discovering that some plants may actually have evolved a strategy to cope with radioactivity millions of years ago when the Earth was more exposed to natural radiation.

"There was a lot more radioactivity on the surface back then than there is now, so probably when life was evolving, these plants came across radioactivity and they probably developed some mechanism that is now in them," Hajduch speculated.

Soybeans and flax have proven to be crops particularly adaptive to the toxic conditions. In order to identify the mechanisms these plants are using, researchers looked at the proteins contained in the plants' seeds via a methodology called "proteomics." An organism's proteins are typically some of the most vulnerable molecules to radiation exposure.

Both soybean and flax appear to have evolved distinct ways of shielding their proteins, Hajduch pointed out.

"In soybean, we detected the mobilization of seed storage proteins and processes similar to what we see when plants adapt [to high levels of] heavy metals," he explained. "In flax it was different. We saw more proteins involved in cell signaling, for instance."

The study could lead to a better understanding of how to grow supercrops capable of thriving even in adverse conditions. Someday, astronauts living in settlements in space, on the moon or on other planets might even be able to grow crops resistant to higher radiation levels.

At the very least, the study brings hope that nature and the land can find a way to recover even after unspeakable disasters like what happened at Chernobyl.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Would you eat soybeans grown in Chernobyl?
Researchers have discovered an innate ability in plants like soybeans and flax to thrive in radioactive environments.