It turns out that spending a year in space, orbiting the earth not only changes your perspective of the world but the latest NASA study reveals that it also changes your gene expression. It sounds like the stuff of Sci Fi movies or intergalactic casino games, but its actually true.
American astronaut, Scott Kelly returned to Earth on 1 March 2016 after spending 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS), away from his identical twin, Mark. Early finding from NASA’s Twin Study reveal that 7% of Scott Kelly’s genes no longer match those of Mark Kelly. The study examines what happened to Kelly before, during and after his one-year stint aboard the International Space Station through a comprehensive assessment in comparison with his twin, Mark, who remained on Earth.
NASA’s Twin Study
Conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program, the preliminary findings of the Twin Study were released at the 2018 Investigator’s Workshop in January. Researchers monitored large numbers of Kelly’s cytokines (produced by immune system cells), metabolites (integral for maintaining life) and proteins (workhorses within each cell) while he was in space aboard the ISS to gather information on how space travel affects biological systems.
Since Kelly returned to Earth, the identical twins have undergone a battery of medical tests to identify what the long term effects of time in space and microgravity has had on Scott Kelly’s body.
The preliminary findings reveal that Scott Kelly experienced changes on genetic level. The study found that seven per cent of astronaut’s Scott Kelly’s genetic expression (how genes function within cells) did not return to baseline after his return in two years ago in 2016. Although his genetic expression has altered, he and his brother remain identical twins.
The 2018 findings of the Twin Study largely corroborated those from 2017, with the addition of a few new discoveries. According to the latest research data, Scott Kelly displayed a decrease in bone density, showed indications of inflammation, gastrointestinal changes, as well as changes in his telomeres and telomerase which are parts of the chromosomal system that is related to aging. Scott Kelly, now retired, also experienced the effects caused by an excess of CO2 in his tissues, a lack of oxygen that was able to make it to his tissues and the lasting effects it had on his body’s ability to maintain and repair itself.
While most of the biological changes that Scott Kelly experienced in space returned relatively quickly to baseline once he was acclimated back on Earth, a few changes continued to persist after six months. The study further concluded that Kelly’s genetic transformation suggest long-term modification to at least five biological pathways and functions.
The report pointed out that Scott Kelly did not experience any significant changes to his cognitive performance. Although a slight decrease in speed and accuracy was noted in the retired astronaut when undergoing a cognitive performance assessment in comparison to his brother.
Long Term Objective
According to a statement released by the space agency, “The Twins Study has benefited NASA by providing the first application of genomics to evaluate potential risks to the human body in space.” The study provides vital information that plays an important part of NASA’s goal to send astronauts to Mars and beyond on long duration space flights.