Preliminary results from NASA’s Twins study have shown that space travel immediately unleashes an explosive process of gene activation in astronauts. In other words, NASA has found that pace travel causes an increase in methylation, the process responsible for turning genes on and off.
The study has revealed some of the changes that occur in the body of an astronaut who spent nearly one year in space, compared to his twin brother who remained on Earth.
Scientists hope that by studying two people who share the same genetics, but live in different environments for a year, they will find how the human body is affected by extended periods living in space.
“Some of the most interesting 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,” Twins Study Principal Investigator Chris Mason, Ph.D., of Weill Cornell Medicine, said.
“With this research, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This occurs as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth,” added Mason.
When retired twin astronaut Scott Kelly came back to Earth in March of 2016, the Twins study’s investigation intensified with the collection of samples from him and his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
The researchers began to combine the data and review the huge amount of information for correlations.
“This study expresses one of the most complete views of human biology,” said Mason.
“It really establishes the basis for understanding the molecular risks of space travel, as well as the potential forms of protection and correcting those genetic changes.”
Epigenomics researcher, Andy Feinberg, found that the degree of chemical modification to DNA (methylation) in the astronaut’s white blood cells decreased while inflight, but returned to normal once he was back on Earth.
It is expected that the final results of the Twins Study will be published in 2018.
Featured image credit: NASA