While we all want to travel, live and bang in space, there are some pretty major things to consider, such as the fact that our sentient flesh cocoons were not designed to handle the harsh conditions of the cosmic void. Though research like NASA’s Twin Study will illuminate some of the potential impacts of extended spaceflight on our bodies, so many mysteries remain — particularly when it comes to what’s going to happen to our DNA.
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An upcoming experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) could answer some of the questions that past research has raised about curious changes to astronauts’ genes in space. On March 27, NASA will launch Orbital ATK’s Cygnus OA-7, a resupply mission which will be carrying materials for an experiment called Genes in Space II. According to NASA, the experiment will specifically be examining telomeres, which are the protective caps at the end of a person’s chromosomes, tightly-wound bundles of DNA of which humans have 23 pairs.
As a person ages, their telomeres shorten. It was assumed that the stress of spaceflight would accelerate this shortening in astronauts’ DNA. But the first results from the Twin Study, in which astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year in space while NASA studied changes to his body by comparing him with his identical twin Mark, suggested the opposite. While he was in space, Scott Kelly’s telomeres lengthened, returning to their preflight levels shortly after he returned to Earth. The Genes in Space experiment could potentially explain this anomaly, and offer further insight into the relationship between telomeres and extended spaceflight. Gizmodo has reached out to principal investigator David W. Niesel for comment on how the experiment will work.
This isn’t the first experiment that looks at DNA in space. Last year, NASA launched the first instalment of the Genes in Space experiment, which examined the impact of microgravity on DNA, in addition to the the growth and behaviour of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria aboard the ISS. The results, which are still pending, could help researchers understand not only how spaceflight changes astronaut DNA, but how to best combat illness aboard a spacecraft.
So why does anyone care about minor changes in some random feature of our chromosomes? It turns out that shortened telomeres are actually associated with numerous illnesses, including cancer, aplastic anaemia and liver dysfunction. While some outlets have praised Kelly’s telomere lengthening as some sort of anti-ageing miracle, this could also be indicative of a problem, as John Charles, chief scientist at NASA’s Human Research Program, explained to Gizmodo earlier this year. If extended spaceflight is putting astronauts at a heightened risk for diseases, we need to figure that out ASAP.
Cygnus will also be ferrying up several other fun experiments for ISS astronauts to embark on, including one about biomolecular sequencing in space. Hopefully, the results aren’t too disastrous.