Even though we might have the desire to live and travel in space, we must know that our body was not designed to handle the harsh conditions of the cosmic void. Even though research like NASA’s Twin study might illuminate some of the potential impacts of extended space flight on our bodies, there are still many mysteries yet to be discovered, especially when it comes to what happens to our DNA.
NASA has launched Orbital ATK’s Cygnus OA-7, a resupply mission, that will be carrying materials for an experiment called Genes in Space II. According to NASA, this experiment will be examining the 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.
The telomeres shorten as the person grows old. An assumption was made 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.
The study claim that when he was in space, Scott Kelly’s telomeres had lengthened. The Genes in Space experiment will potentially explain this anomaly, and offer further insight into the relationship between telomeres and extended spaceflight.
This isn’t the first experiment where the study of DNA in space was conducted. NASA had launched the first installment of the Genes in Space experiment that had examined the impact of microgravity on DNA, in addition to the growth and behavior of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria aboard the ISS last year. The results might help scientists understand not only how spaceflight changes astronaut DNA but how to best combat illness aboard a spacecraft.
But why would it even matter with some minor changes in our chromosome?
Does anyone care about minor changes in some random features of our chromosomes? It turns out that shortened telomeres are actually associated with anemia, illnesses, cancer, and liver dysfunction. Kelly’s telomere lengthening might lead to some sort of anti-aging miracle, but this could also be indicative of a problem. If extended spaceflight is putting astronauts at a heightened risk for diseases, there is a need to find out why.