NASA Twins Study: Extended Space Stay Alters Astronaut's DNA

Study NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly's DNA Changed in Space
Study NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly's DNA Changed in Space

16 March, 2018

After a year at the International Space Station - the longest time an American has spent outside our planet - NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth with changes in his DNA At first glance astronaut Scott Kelly and his brother Mark look exactly the same.

Kelly, now retired from Nasa, and his twin were no longer genetically the same. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration used this knowledge to conduct an experiment, hoping to learn if space travel effected human DNA on a fundamental level.

Spending a year in space not only changes your outlook, it transforms your genes.

Scott spent a year on the International Space Station while Mark remained on Earth. Since then the agency has extensively tested the effects on his body, and compared him to his (formerly) identical twin to assess the changes.

"By measuring large numbers of metabolites, cytokines, and proteins, researchers learned that spaceflight is associated with oxygen deprivation stress, increased inflammation, and dramatic nutrient shifts that affect gene expression..."

As such, the Twin Study was intrinsic to NASA's efforts to prepare for its proposed "Journey to Mars", which is expected to take place sometime in the 2030s. Scott, on the other hand, spent nearly a year orbiting the Earth on a mission that started in March 2015.

Bascom also points out that it takes a lot less than space travel to alter how open or closed genes are for interpretation. The other 93 percent of his genes quickly returned to normal.

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About 7 percent of Scott's genes may have longer-term changes in expression after spaceflight, in areas such as DNA fix, the immune system, how bones are formed, hypoxia (an oxygen deficiency in the tissues), and hypercapnia (excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream).

The study itself focused on four categories of research split into 10 investigations to evaluate the identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.

Mark and Scott were the only identical twin astronauts in history.

In a press release, NASA said some of Scott's bodily changes returned to normal within hours and days of landing.

The Twins Study Investigators came from around the country to meet and share their final research results at the annual Human Research Program Investigators' Workshop held in Galveston, Texas in January 2018.

For example, researchers reported that Scott Kelly's telomeres-end caps of chromosomes that typically shorten as a person ages-became significantly longer while he was in space.

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