7% of Scott Kelly’s Genes Changed After a Year in Space

Identical twin astronauts, Scott and Mark Kelly, are subjects of NASA’s Twins Study. Scott (right) spent a year in space while Mark (left) stayed on Earth as a control subject. Researchers looked at the effects of space travel on the human body. Credit: NASA

On March 1st, 2016, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after spending a total of 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). As part of NASA’s goal to send astronauts on long-duration space flights to Mars and beyond, this record-setting stay in space was designed to test the limit of human endurance in a microgravity environment.

Also known as the Twin Study, this experiment consisted of Kelly spending nearly a year in space while his identical twin (Mark Kelly) remained on Earth. Since Kelly’s return, the two have been subjected to medical tests to see what long-term effects microgravity has had of Scott’s Kelly’s physique. The final results of this test, which were just released, reveal that Scott has experienced changes at the genetic level.

The study was conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program, and the preliminary findings were released at their Investigator’s Workshop on the week of January 23rd, 2017. According to these findings, Scott Kelly showed indications of inflammation, changes in his telomeres and telomerase (parts of the chromosonal system related to aging), a decrease in bone density and gastrointestinal changes – all of which were expected.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

As NASA reported in their preliminary findings:

“By measuring large numbers of metabolites, cytokines, and proteins, researchers learned that spaceflight is associated with oxygen deprivation stress, increased inflammation, and dramatic nutrient shifts that affect gene expression… After returning to Earth, Scott started the process of readapting to Earth’s gravity. Most of the biological changes he experienced in space quickly returned to nearly his preflight status. Some changes returned to baseline within hours or days of landing, while a few persisted after six months.” 

At the same time, the study took into account possible genomic and cognitive changes between the two brothers. These findings were recently clarified by NASA, which indicated that 93% of Scott Kelly’s genes returned to normal after he returned to Earth while the remaining 7% points were missing. These were attributed to “longer-term changes in genes related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.”

In other words, in addition to the well-documented effects of microgravity – such as muscle atrophy, bone density loss and loss of eyesight – Scott Kelly also experienced health effect caused by a deficiency in the amount of oxygen that was able to make it to his tissues, an excess of CO2 in his tissues, and long-term effects in how his body is able to maintain and repair itself.

At the same time, the report indicated that Scott Kelly experienced no significant changes when it came to cognitive performance. The preliminary findings touched on this, indicating that Scott showed a slight decrease in speed and accuracy when undergoing cognitive performance testing compared to his brother. This decrease was more pronounced when he first landed, but was attributed to readjustment to Earth’s gravity.

Mathias Basner – a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, who was in charge of conducting the tests – also found no real difference in cognition between 6 month and 12 month missions. This is especially important since typical stays aboard the ISS last six months, whereas long term missions to Mars would take 150-300 days – depending on the alignment of the planets and the speed of the spacecraft.

A two way trip to Mars, as well as the time spent in Mars lower-gravity environment (37.6 % that of Earth’s), could take multiple years. As such, the Twin Study was intrinsic to NASA’s efforts to prepare for its proposed “Journey to Mars“, which is expected to take place sometime in the 2030s. These and other studies being conducted aboard the ISS seek to determine what the long-term effects on astronaut health will be, and how they can be mitigated.

The NASA Twin Study was the result of a partnership between 10 individual investigations, 12 colleges and universities, NASA’s biomedical labs and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute Consortium.

Scott Kelly’s stay in space and the Twin Study will also be the subject of a PBS documentary titled “Beyond a Year in Space“. Be sure to check out the teaser trailer here:

Further Reading: MLive

Welcome to Mars! – Hi-SEAS and Mars Society Kick Off New Season of Missions

Credit: Hi-SEAS

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (aka. Hi-SEAS) – a human spaceflight analog for Mars located on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii – just kicked off its third research mission designed to simulate manned missions on Mars.

Located at an elevation of 2500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level, the analog site is located in a dry, rocky environment that is very cold and subject to very little precipitation. While there, the crew of Mission Three will conduct detailed research studies to determine what is required to sustain a space flight crew during an extended mission to Mars and while living on Mars.

The six-member team includes Martha Lenio (Commander), Allen Mirkadyrov, Sophie Milam, Neil Sheibelhut, Jocelyn Dunn, and Zak Wilson, with Ed Fix and Micheal Castro in Reserve. This crew will spend the next 254 days living in conditions that closely resemble those present on the Martian surface.

Research into food, crew dynamics, behaviors, roles and performance, and other aspects of space flight and a mission on Mars itself is the primary focus. This will be the third of four research missions conducted by Hi-SEAS and funded by the NASA Human Research Program. The information gleaned from these research studies, it is hoped, will one day help NASA conduct its own manned missions to the Red Planet.

Artist conception of a Hi-SEAS habitation dome. Credit: Blue Planet Research/Bryan Christie Design
Artist conception of a Hi-SEAS habitation dome. Credit: Blue Planet Research/Bryan Christie Design

For the course of their research studies, the crew will be living in a dome that is 11 meters (36 feet) in diameter and has a living area of about 93 square meters (1000 square feet). The dome also has a second level that is loftlike – providing a high-ceiling is crucial to combating long-term feelings of claustrophobia.

The six crew members will sleep in pie-slice-shaped staterooms, each of which contains a mattress, desk and stool. Their clothing is stored under the bed, which sits at the wide side of the slice. They do their business in a series of composting toilets that turn their repurposed feces (the pathogens are removed) into a potential source of fertilizer for the next mission.

A workout area provides the astronauts with an opportunity to stay in shape with such exercises as video aerobics, juggling, and balloon volleyball.  And communications are conducted through NASA-issued email addresses – with an artificial delay to simulate the time lag from Mars – and access to a web made of cached, nondynamic pages.

To complete the illusion of being on Mars, when the crew are not in their pressurized habitation dome, they will be walking around in space suits. The mission will conclude on July 14th, 2015, with a fourth and final mission to take place at a so-far undetermined date.

Image Credit: Mars Society MRDS
The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah.
Credit: Mars Society MRDS

In related news, the Mars Society announced yesterday that Crew 142 arrived at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah to begin the 2014-15 MDRS field season. Crew 142, consisting of seven people, is the first of three crews composed of finalists for the planned Mars Arctic 365 (MA365) mission that will serve at MDRS for two weeks of training and testing.

Once their training is complete, crew 142 will be shipping off to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) located on Devon Island in northern Canada, followed shortly behind by the other MA365 finalists, for a year-long research stint.

Much like the Hi-SEAS project, the Mars Society is a non-profit space advocacy organization that is dedicated to promoting the human exploration and settlement of Mars. Established by Dr. Robert Zubrin and colleagues in 1998, the organization works to educate the public, the media, and government on the benefits of Mars exploration and the importance of planning a manned mission in the coming decade.

For the next two weeks, the seven finalists will be engaged in activities designed to simulate conditions on another planet. For the duration, they will be living and working in the Mars Analog Research Stations (MARS) – a prototype of the habitat that the Mars Society plans to eventually land on Mars and serves as the crew’s main base as they explore the harsh Martian environment.

FMARS hab with Mars flag in foreground. Credit: Mars Society
FMARS hab with Mars flag in foreground. Credit: Mars Society

Ultimately, these analog experiments offer NASA and other space research groups the opportunity to carry out field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans to explore Mars in the coming years.

For one, it lets research crews know what kinds of work they can physically do when fully suited up, and just how well their suits can hold up to months’ worth of activity. At the same time, it allows for psychological studies and human factor issues – like testing the effects of isolation on human beings, and whether or not the habitats will suffice for long periods of occupation.

Above all, it lets us see how human beings with different skills sets and tasks can function together as a whole in a Martian environment. On any given day, astronauts in these analog environments are tasked with working within the pressurized habitats, out in the field, or far away using pressurized rovers or un-pressurized vehicles.

At the same time, it offers the opportunity for research crews to test out being in an isolated environment, connected to mission control and the terrestrial scientific community only through official communications.

And of course, there’s also the matter of the astronauts’ being connected to each other and robots in the field. Making these different assets work together to achieve the maximum possible exploration effect requires developing a combined operations approach, which is another aim of Hi-SEAS, the Mars Society, and other research groups.

Further Reading: Hi-SEAS, Mars Society