It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but new research on twins shows that being suspended in zero gravity for long periods of time (a.k.a. going to space) can alter our bodies’ genetic makeup.
Mark and Scott Kelly are identical twins. They’re both astronauts at NASA, have nearly identical genomes and have lived pretty similar lives — at least up until recently. In 2015, Scott was sent into space for a year-long voyage (his total time in space now clocks in at 520 days), while Mark (who’s spent 54 days in orbit) stayed back on Earth. (Whether they flipped a coin or played rock, paper, scissor to determine who’d circle the sun has yet to be reported, but we imagine Mark was a little jealous.)
Both brothers’ blood and other biological samples were measured throughout the 340 days they spent apart — Mark with his feet planted firmly on Earth, and Scott with his floating in space. When the brothers were reunited, researchers got to work comparing the collected samples.
Turns out Scott’s DNA had dramatically changed. Scientists were surprised to see that the space-travelling twin’s telomeres, the little caps at the end of our DNA that store important information about our lifespan and illnesses, had become much longer than his siblings’.
“That is exactly the opposite of what we thought,” said Susan Bailey, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University.
Although the findings were presented at the 2017 NASA Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop last week., it’ll take some time to truly understand the findings. Researchers need to analyze many, many samples, and compare results to samples taken from other astronauts. Then the research will need to be peer reviewed, which could take years.
Still, it’s pretty clear that going into orbit has some very real effects on the human body, both inside and out. Cool, science. Real cool.