The NASA twins study is another breakthrough for science, this time in the field of genetics, not of physics or astronomy.
NASA used two astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly, since they were twins and shared the same DNA; this allowed the space agency to explore how space affects the human body. One of the study’s subjects, Scott Kelly, revealed his reaction to the study findings on the weekday show Marketplace Tech.
Space travel poses several threats to astronauts, hence, the limited number of manned missions. Threats start right from when the rocket takes off, and the latest findings by NASA suggest that the building blocks of life changes after exposure to outer space.
How Space Changes Genetics
After Scott Kelly arrived from his 342-day mission on the International Space Station in 2016, initial findings revealed that his telomeres lengthened in space, but shortened in just two days following his arrival on Earth. These study findings suggest that genetic changes are temporary and DNA eventually returns to normal after the passage of some time.
While it’s possible for the DNA differences to be a temporary effect on the human body, NASA’s findings reveal otherwise. Approximately 7 percent of Scott Kelly’s DNA change while he was in space. So, 7 percent of his DNA was altered permanently, while the remaining 93 percent reverted to normal as his body adapted to living on Earth.
“I did read in the newspaper the other day… that 7 percent of my DNA had changed permanently,” Kelly said. “And I’m reading that, I’m like, ‘Huh, well that’s weird.'”
Kelly, who retired from NASA in 2016, had much to say about the risks associated with space flight. According to him, his job is like any other profession which entails risks.
“We’re exposing ourselves to risk … you decide the risk of driving to work is worth it because you have to get to work. My work just happened to be in space.”
Kelly is no stranger to the risks in space travel where it’s impossible to rush to the nearest hospital for health emergencies. As noted by Healthcare IT News, the first thing NASA astronauts do if they have a medical concern is to contact a surgeon since there is no doctor on the International Space Station.
NASA Johnson Space Center’s deputy chief of space and occupational medicine, Shannan Moynihan, acknowledged the struggles of treating astronauts through telemedicine.
“Telemedicine really is our only resource. Unfortunately we don’t get to make house calls. I’ve tried that, it didn’t fly.”
Microgravity, carbon dioxide poisoning, and the new environment affect astronauts. In fact, detailed findings on Scott Kelly’s health condition after his arrival revealed as much.
In 2017, the NASA Twins Study revealed the initial findings and confirmed how space could cause substantial changes in a person’s DNA. When Scott Kelly arrived from space, scientists conducted tests and noted that his DNA was different from his brother’s.
Initial findings revealed that his telomeres, or the end cap of the chromosomes in the DNA, became longer while he was in space. NASA verified this through multiple testings.
Colorado State University’s Susan Bailey focused on a study on telomeres, which, as noted above, lengthened during Kelly’s space stay, but reverted to the same level after two days on Earth.
Weill Cornell Medicine’s Chris Mason focused on a study on how RNA and DNA changes during space travel. The findings matched the conclusion of other studies. The five major findings include: oxygen deficiency due to high carbon dioxide levels and lack of oxygen; mitochondrial stress indicating damage to the cell’s power plants; telomere lengthening, DNA damage and repair which may be linked to caloric restriction and radiation; blood clotting, collagen, and bone formation due to zero gravity in space and fluid shifts; and hyperactive immune system most likely from exposure to a new environment.
The twins were the main subject of 10 different studies. Results presented during the 2018 NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop in Texas provided additional information on the human body’s reaction to space conditions. NASA plans to release a paper on the integrated study later this year.
The NASA twins study is crucial to the success of manned missions to Mars, which can take three years, and eventually in finding a way to help humans adapt to living for extended periods in space. As for the Mars mission, Scott Kelly believes “it’s more for our economic existence more than physical existence, if that makes sense.”