Genes change in space — NASA twin study

14 April, 2019, 05:23 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • NASA’s Rodent Habitat module with both access doors open

"Mark's environment was much more varied", said Bailey. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.

-A flu shot given in space worked as well as one on Earth. That would make sense, given that radiation levels in the International Space Station are higher than on Earth. Really fast. Traveling at approximately 17,000 miles per hour, 300 miles above the Earth, astronauts watch 16 sunrises and sunsets every "day" while floating around in a box with a handful of people they depend on for survival. But what about the human body's response to real-life spaceflight - what are the health effects? Whether these stressors have long-term health repercussions remains unclear, as does what the study tells us about the perils of space travel on a person's genome, the scientists say.

Certainly these are concerns for NASA.

The researchers found that most of the changes to the human body from extended spaceflight returned to normal shortly after a return to Earth. The opportunity to explore these intriguing questions arose with identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.

In an image provided by NASA, Astronaut Scott Kelly in the cupola of the International Space Station, Jan. 27, 2011.

In 2012, NASA picked Scott Kelly for a one-year mission in space while his identical twin Mark Kelly stayed home on earth.

NASA's landmark "Twins Study", which gave us the first integrated molecular view into genetic changes, has demonstrated that a human body adapts and remains robust and resilient even after spending almost a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Of the studies led by scientists at Stanford University, Colorado State University, Cornell University, and others, some of the notable results included Scott's in-flight lengthening of telomeres, the protective endcaps on chromosomes. The integrated paper - encompassing work from 10 research teams - reveals some interesting, surprising and reassuring data about how one human body adapted to - and recovered from - the extreme environment of space.

While Scott took part in space-based biomedical studies involving known hazards like weightlessness and radiation, Mark participated in parallel studies on Earth.

The NASA study was published this week in the journal Science.

When astronaut Scott Kelly landed in the frigid Kazakhstan plains on March 2, 2016, a team of responders pulled Kelly and two Russian cosmonauts from the charred capsule and carried them to chairs, set out in the crisp morning air. DNA mutated in some of his cells.

One of the most dramatic findings concerned epigenetics - how genes are turned on or off to produce proteins.

By comparing the two men, who share the same genes, researchers were able to see - down to the DNA - what changed as Scott endured the stresses of space travel. It may be caused by fluids shifting in the absence of gravity.

"We learned that the human body is pretty resilient and we can survive and to some extent maybe even thrive on these long-duration flights", Mark Kelly said. So any age difference between the brothers would only be a few milliseconds. Nearly immediately-within 48 hours of landing-Kelly's telomeres reverted to baseline length and, worse, some were actually shorter than they had been before the mission.

A team with Johns Hopkins University identified a less than 5 percent difference in overall methylation, a process of chemical modifications in gene expression, in the twins' white blood cells. Telomeres are critical for maintaining chromosome and genome stability. Shortened telomeres are linked with aging and disease. With this data, NASA could obtain a better understanding on how environmental stressors, including time in space, influence gene activity. Thus, telomere length reflects an individual's genetics, experiences and exposures, and so are informative indicators of general health and aging. While significant, it is hard to draw conclusions for all humans or future astronauts from a single test subject in the spaceflight environment.

In contrast, Mark's telomeres remained stable throughout the entire period, NASA said. That was exactly the opposite of what we expected. A year in space lead Scott Kelly to become more farsighted as his carotid artery and retina thickened, which is common during space flight. Our challenge now is to figure out how and why such spaceflight specific shifts in telomere length dynamics are occurring.

"That's good news", added Gronostajski, who had no role in the study. As the organization prepares for the mission to Mars, Rana said that "NASA has expanded [this] study to a larger group of astronauts, and is planning to send up another group".

Susan Bailey describes the telomere study.



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