NASA's Twin Study Reveals What Happens to Our Bodies in Space
Every astronaut on the ISS lives one small mistake away from death. A malfunctioning fan, a snag in a space suit, or poorly-timed spark could mean the difference between being a national hero or another floating piece of orbital debris. The most insidious part of life in space, however, is the invisible changes to our bodies like bone loss or radiation. Now, NASA is conducting their most thorough study to date on how space affects the human body.
The research comes from the "Twins Study," a project that examines the physical differences between two NASA astronauts who are identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott was sent to the ISS, while Mark remained here on Earth. NASA will publish their full findings later this year, but we already have some confirmations on their preliminary findings, which range from relatively minor to potentially groundbreaking.
One of the highlights is that Scott Kelly's telomeres, which protect chromosomes from becoming damaged, grew significantly while in space. The ability to lengthen telomeres has been linked to the potential to live much longer: with longer telomeres, human cells can replicate many more times before the genetic material becomes decayed and damaged. This can (theoretically) slow down the aging process. Scott's telomeres shortened upon returning to Earth, but the phenomenon still offers a window into how to make the human genetic material more durable.
Another major discovery from the study is that Scott's genes underwent widespread mutation – hundreds of mutations, in fact. Though scientists haven't figured out exactly what this means for astronauts in general, the data from Scott Kelly's mutations could actually pave the way for colonizing other planets. Bear with us. According to researchers at Cornell: "Understanding how environmental stressors influence RNA and DNA methylation may help to enable long-term space travel for future missions."
Check back for the full report later this year!