NASA Twins Study: Space Travel Alters Gene Expression 'Like Fireworks'


NASA's Twins Study's preliminary results show that gene expression changes as a result of space travel. These changes happen "like fireworks," as they occur the moment the human body gets into space.

'Explosion Like Fireworks'

Being an astronaut is no easy job especially with the physical challenges that come along with being launched into space. Now, NASA may be closer to a clearer understanding of just how much the body changes during space travel as the preliminary results for NASA's Twins Study have been released with quite interesting outcomes.

One of the most interesting results to come out of the Twins Study is that space travel evidently increases methylation, or the process of genes turning on and off. In fact, this effect is seen almost immediately, as the changes happen as soon as an astronaut gets into space.

"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," says Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell University, principal investigator of the Twins Study.

What's more, this "fireworks" effect doesn't just occur when an astronaut reaches space, as investigators still observe this phenomenon, albeit temporarily, after an astronaut returns to Earth.

NASA Twins Study

The Twins Study comprises 10 investigations with the aim of understanding the subtle differences that occur in the body as a result of space flight. To do this, two individuals with the same genetics spent one year in different environments — one in space and the other on Earth.

Astronauts and identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly participated in the first-of-its-kind study that will not just enlighten NASA on the effects of space flight on the human body, but possibly lead to safer and longer space travels.

Other Interesting Observations

Investigators also noted other interesting effects of space travel so far. For instance, the telomeres, or the caps at the end of chromosomes became longer during space travel, and then shrunk back upon returning to Earth. Interestingly, shorter telomeres are associated with getting older. While investigators are still unsure as to the cause of this phenomenon, they surmise that more exercise and lesser calories consumed in space may have contributed.

What's more, the twins' gut bacteria had notable differences throughout the investigation, though this could possibly be due to the differences in diet and environment. Temporary height increase after space travel was also observed, and differences in 200,000 of the brothers' RNA molecules led the investigators to look at the possibility of the activation of a "space gene."

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