NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was a participant in one of the more unusual experiments conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in recent years.
In March of last year, Kelly was sent into space and monitored at the International Space Station (ISS). Nothing unusual there, you might think, but you’d be wrong, because whilst the NASA astronaut was being observed aboard the ISS, so was his twin brother Mark Kelly back on the green fields of Earth.
Mark seems to have picked the long straw here, as the experiment lasted a year, so as his brother was sweating it out in space, he was at home, which seems a little unfair, but I’m sure they were both happy enough.
It appears that the twin brothers made the perfect participants for this particular experiment because they have the same DNA, which means that NASA were able to monitor and compare directly changes in Scott’s genes aboard the ISS with Mark’s back at home.
Basically, the idea was to find out how and indeed if spending a year in space had affected Scott differently to a year in the life of Mark, on terra firma.
Scientists are already aware of the adverse effects that living in a weightless environment can have on the human body, such as stretching the spine or shrinking your muscles. Living in such a way can also wreak havoc with your sleeping pattern across the short term, however long term effects of exposure to space are less well documented.
With researchers currently analysing data from the mission, it could be some time before a full report of their findings is released and a comprehensive list of details may never be made public due to the sheer bulk of data and potentially sensitive information that astronauts may want to remain private.
Some information, though, has now been released and scientists have already encountered surprises.
According to results published on Nature Scott’s telomeres (the caps at the end of chromosones) got longer than his brother Mark’s while he was in space, and then returned to normal once he was back home. Susan Bailey of Colorado State University, says the results were surprising; “That is exactly the opposite of what we thought”. This is because shorter telomeres are typically linked to the process of ageing. Scientists are still determining the implications of the finding, but speculate it could be a result of increased exercise and fewer calories while in space.
Gut bacteria was also an area of difference between the two, which is probably explained by the twins’ different diets and environments, according to NASA.
Having found more than 200,000 RNA molecules that differed between the two brothers (it is worth bearing in mind that mutations in the genome are normal in twins), scientists are “looking closer to see if a ‘space gene’ could have been activated while Scott was in space”, say NASA.
The results, which were first published in January, will be used in preparation for deep-space missions in the future.