NASA Investigates the Effects of Space On Our DNA
Could we actually live longer if we lived in space? We wouldn't try that just yet, but NASA is out to answer that question surrounding genes in its latest expedition, the Genes in Space II experiment scheduled for March 27. All the needed materials will be traveling to the International Space Station aboard the Cygnus, a pressurized cargo pod.
The experiment is meant to study a "shift in the dynamics of telomeres, critical protective caps on the tips of chromosomes." To bring you back to freshman biology class, chromosomes are the structures containing most of our DNA. Their telomere caps naturally shorten over time because of aging, but can prematurely shorten due to stress (like what an astronaut endures), which can lead to abnormalities in telomere lengths. And that's linked to a variety of diseases, which is the real takeaway here. In short, the study is trying to figure out whether DNA can be measured during spaceflight and if so, its effects.
After NASA conducted the Twin Study on identical twins Scott (astronaut) and Mark (Earth dweller) Kelly earlier this year, Dr. Susan Bailey's investigation found that instead of shortening, Scott's telomeres grew out while in space. This might be due to variables like exercising more and eating less, but when Scott returned to Earth after his year on the ISS, his telomeres began shortening again.
Seeing as that's connected to aging, it sounds like "expanding telomeres" means we can move to a space station and become immortal, but we've also read a lot of sci-fi in our day. In reality, the upcoming Genes in Space II experiment seeks to discover more and perhaps offer some answers to Scott's unexpected results, so NASA can look into diseases that star-bound humans might deal with. They just have to launch everything to the ISS before they can begin.
If scientists are able to confirm that space causes the shortening of telomeres, there are still drawbacks of living in space, such as "symptoms of myocardial dysfunction, muscle atrophy, and osteopenia, among other diseases," according to NASA. Between proposed budget cuts and the TRAPPIST-1 System discovery, a lot is in the air for NASA right now and we hope this experiment will improve our understanding of space and its impact on our puny human bodies.