NASA's Twins Study Reveals How a Year in Space Affects the Human Body

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Astronaut Scott Kelly (left) spent a year aboard the ISS while his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. (Photo: NASA)

NASA has confirmed the preliminary findings from its year-long Twins Study, and now those results have been integrated into a single "multidimensional analysis" published in the journal Science.

The first-of-its-kind opportunity to study the genetic impact of space on the human body came about after astronaut Scott Kelly was chosen to serve aboard the International Space Station from March 2015 to March 2016. His identical twin, Mark Kelly, who is also a former NASA astronaut, remained on Earth.

During the course of NASA's year-long mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), researchers from 12 universities analyzed biological samples from both brothers to gauge the genetic shifts that might be taking place.

Space changes how genes are expressed.

Results from the study revealed that space travel causes an increase in methylation, the process of turning genes on and off, according to NASA. The change in gene expression caused many of the genes related to Kelly's immune system to become hyper-activated and even shed mitochondrial DNA fragments into his bloodstream. Researchers aren't sure why the mitochondrial DNA freed itself from cells, but they believe it could be the body's way of coping with stress.

"Some of the most exciting 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 said in a statement. “With this study, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of genes change how they are turned on and turned off. This happens as soon as an astronaut gets into space, and some of the activity persists temporarily upon return to Earth.”

While most of the biological changes Scott experienced in space returned to normal shortly after landing back on Earth, researchers found that 7 percent of his genes experienced long-term changes. Those genes correlate with his immune system, bone formation, DNA repair, hypoxia (deficiency in oxygen reaching tissues) and hypercapnia (excess carbon dioxide in the bloodstream).

Time in space affects telomere length.

Scott Kelly's year in space included a record-breaking 5,440 orbits around the Earth.
Scott Kelly's year in space included a record-breaking 5,440 orbits around the Earth. (Photo: NASA)

One of the most surprising parts of the study so far has to do with telomeres. These are essentially caps at the end of DNA that protect our chromosomes. They are thought to be tied to aging, since the length of our telomeres both decrease as we get older and are impacted by such factors as stress, smoking, lack of exercise and a poor diet.

Before the study, scientists speculated that the stress of space living would cause Scott's telomeres to shrink in comparison to his brother's. Instead, much to their surprise, the telomeres in Scott's white blood cells grew.

"That is exactly the opposite of what we thought," Susan Bailey, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University who is working with NASA to study the effect of space on telomeres, told Nature.

Once Scott returned to Earth, his telomeres quickly returned to their pre-mission levels. NASA speculates the increase may have something to do with the low-calorie diet and strict exercise regimen Scott adhered to while onboard the ISS.

It also affects your arteries.

NASA wanted to know if being in space for an extended period of time would affect an astronaut's arteries and blood circulation. Scott and Mark regularly submitted blood and urine samples, and ultrasounds were taken of their arteries. Tests showed Scott's carotid artery wall was thickened and he had increased inflammation — even immediately after landing back on Earth.

It's still too early to say if Scott's condition is reversible, however, or if being in space for that long permanently has accelerated the progression of atherosclerosis — buildup of fatty deposits in arteries.

Scott Kelly on the ISS
Astronaut Scott Kelly returned home March 1, 2016, from nearly a year about the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

It changes your gut, too.

Other findings of note included a shift in the ratio of two dominant species of gut bacteria in Scott Kelly. While in space, one species dominated the other. Back on the ground, however, the ratio returned to normal. Researchers performing genome sequencing on the twins also found more than 200,000 RNA molecules that were expressed differently between the twins. Current theories as to why this is happening range from the effects of microgravity to the simple act of eating freeze-dried food for 340 consecutive days.

And then there's the mystery of DNA methylation, a process that governs chemical modifications to DNA. While in space, Scott's methylation levels decreased. Over the same time on Earth, Mark's levels did the complete opposite. According to NASA, such results may indicate "genes that are more sensitive to a changing environment whether on Earth or in space."

Your immune system stays protected.

The twins both took the flu vaccine at one-year intervals, and tests show they both had an increased cell response to the flu — meaning the vaccine was working in protecting them from contracting the flu.

Therefore, NASA concluded the flu vaccine has the same effects in space as it does on Earth. This finding gives hope that astronauts can be vaccinated and protected against contracting other viruses and diseases while in space for long periods of time.