Science fiction has long been the watchman on the wall, warning of potential horrors that await us in space. While we dream of one day traveling beyond Earth’s gravity, there is now a new danger to overcome if our bodies are to survive the journey.
When astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March 2016, after spending a year in space, NASA began collecting data on how space travel affects the human body. As with previous astronauts, Kelly experienced bone density loss due to microgravity, and accumulated fluid between spinal disks extended his height by 1.5 inches. But NASA scientists are now discovering that extensive time in space changed astronaut Kelly on a genetic level.
Scott and his brother Mark Kelly, husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, are not just both astronauts – they are also twins. This is why they are the focus of NASA’s Twins Study, which has been monitoring the brothers’ physiology. Researchers collected samples from before, during, and after Scott’s sojourn through space while Mark stayed on Earth as a control sample.
The research is split into 10 separate investigations, each providing further insight into the subtle effects that occur to a person while in space. With Mark as a point of reference, the twins’ identical genetics provide a unique opportunity to discern even the smallest changes.
Since Scott’s return, scientists have been comparing and reviewing the twins’ combined data for correlations. Preliminary results reveal that space travel caused an increase in methylation in Scott’s body, a process that affects gene expression. Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D. and Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, is enthusiastic about the new discovery.
“Some of the most exciting things that we’ve seen from looking at gene expression in space is that we really see an explosion, like fireworks taking off, as soon as the human body gets into space,” said Mason. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.”
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