Being in space probably won't hurt you, new study shows

NASA | Image edited by MIT Technology Review

NASA | Image edited by MIT Technology Review

After almost a year in space, Kelly looked pale but appeared alright, joking about the weather with the crew and media. Paradoxically, it was less the stresses of spaceflight than the ones associated with the bucking, high-speed return to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (which Scott has compared to "going over Niagara Falls in a barrel that's on fire") that caused some of the greatest problems, with CRPs increasing eight-fold from before he left the station to the time he landed. It's not what they expected, said Susan Bailey, a Colorado State University professor who was a principal investigator of telomeres.

"It's reassuring to know that when you come back things will largely be the same". While in space, researchers observed also changes in the expression of Scott's genes, with the majority returning to normal after six months on Earth.

"In this paper they showed there was no statistically significant difference in genetic modifications they could find between the twin in the space station with the one on the ground", said Gronostajski, the director of the University of NY at Buffalo's Genetics, Genomics, and Bioinformatics graduate program.

Yet this study comes with a big, big caveat.

By comparing the two men, who share the same genes, researchers were able to see - down to the DNA - what changed as Scott endured the stresses of space travel.

The research team studied a wide variety of human physiological processes, including gene expression, gut health, immunity and cognition, allowing them to pin down just how much space might change Scott while his brother stayed at home. But perhaps, during a longer deep space mission, this could lead to ill-effects.

Telomeres are considered a biomarker of aging or health risks from cardiovascular disease or cancer. That's the question that NASA set out to answer - with twins.

Biologists and doctors took thousands of measurements from Kelly's body at precise, molecular levels never measured before on such a scale.

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Geneticists were intrigued to find that Scott's telomeres actually lengthened during his spaceflight, but became shorter when he was back on Earth. Importantly, his genes never mutated. Among the genes with altered activity, 9 percent remained abnormal. For example, the flu vaccine administered in space worked exactly as it does on Earth.

"The telomeres in Scott's white blood cells, which are biomarkers of aging at the end of chromosomes, were unexpectedly longer in space then shorter after his return to Earth with average telomere length returning to normal six months later", the release said. His microbiome gained new species of bacteria. This is not necessarily good or bad.

It marks "the dawn of human genomics in space", said Dr. Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University. But it comes with a slew of well-known limitations.

"It was a real privilege to be part of this study", said Scott Kelly, who spent the year in space along with Russia's Mikhail Kornienko. Scott Kelly participates in a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, Dec. 21, 2015. "It's a singular experiment, but a wonderful singular experiment", said Bungo.

"The study sample is two people", Feinberg said.

NASA has released the results from its one-year study of twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, and the news is encouraging. More one-year missions are planned by NASA, officials said, but no details were given Thursday.

NASA plans to eventually establish bases for humans to live and work on the moon and Mars. But during his time in space, 50 of 62 measures of cytokines-interferon, interleukin and other immune system proteins-shifted dramatically. It means seeing the same people over and over again. (Contrary to some breathless headlines, Scott Kelly didn't undergo a space-induced change in his genetic code.) Gene expression changed in both Kellys during the study but in significantly different ways. "The biological significance of it is unknown", said Gronostajski.

In an image provided by NASA, Astronaut Scott Kelly in the cupola of the International Space Station, Jan. 27, 2011. More than 80 other researchers are co-authors. Astronauts have also experienced an increase in the stiffness of blood vessels, but it's unknown if that's something that could result in heart disease. "We're nowhere near that now".

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