“Space twins” brought some good news for those who are going to fly to Mars

Three years ago, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth. His return from the International space station March 1, 2016 completed a record for the U.S. the stay of 340 days in space under a medical microscope. His twin brother mark Kelly (who was also an astronaut) was kept under strict supervision of doctors on Earth. These two twins have offered a unique opportunity to explore how the human body responds to long periods in space, and understand what can happen when you travel, e.g. to Mars.

And now, after more than three years, we finally get a clear picture of what is microgravity, radiation and space environment has done to the body of Scott. The first results, published in Science dozens of scholars from around the world testify to the warm prospects for the future of humanity.

“It’s mostly very good news for space flight and those who are interested to become astronauts,” said Chris Mason, Professor of Cornell University, principal investigator of the twins. “Although the body is able to undergo an extraordinary number of changes, it also demonstrates the extraordinary plasticity to return to a normal earthly condition.”

The study looked at several biological markers of the immune system (it functioned the same as on Earth) to the shape of the eyeball (the seal of the optic nerve from Scott). But the two most interesting result was obtained from studying DNA and gene expression.

Susan Bailey and her colleagues from the University of Colorado focused on the observation of the telomere length of Scott Kelly and the associated enzyme telomerase. The telomeres located on the ends of DNA and their length usually means age and health. Aging, stress and radiation lead to the shortening of telomeres.

Since space flight exposes humans as the stress and radiation exposure, the researchers expected to see the shortening of telomeres. “But it was exactly the opposite,” says Bailey. “Once in flight was taken by our earliest samples, approximately two weeks after departure, we saw significantly longer telomeres Scott than what he had before departure”.

And this trend continued throughout the time of Kelly’s stay on the space station. Overall its telomeres lengthened by approximately 14.5%.

So, what does that mean? Do not think that we suddenly found the fountain of youth in space. A week after the return of his telomeres is significantly reduced. “This is a very, very specific to the spaceflight changes, and very fast, and they made us think about what may be causing it,” says Bailey. The average length of telomere Scott Kelly returned to normal after six months, but an abnormally large number of short telomeres, which were formed for his return to Earth was left in his body.

The biggest mystery is why it happened. Data for telomerase, the enzyme associated with telomere length were not obtained in ideal conditions: although the samples from the body of Kelly in space got to scientists within 48 hours, conditions on the way to the laboratory was controlled well enough to prevent the loss of telomerase activity. Return to Earth in the capsule “Union” does not match ideal laboratory conditions.

Another major change was detected in expression of genes Scott Kelly, that is in the way that DNA directs cells to produce components like proteins.

Scientists have seen that many genes turn on and off during the flight, especially those associated with blood circulation and the immune system. These changes hint at how the body tries to adapt to the cosmos.

Mason said that in the first half of the mission, they watched as nearly 1,500 genes changed their expression. In the second half of the mission was six times more. This suggests that the human body changes in space gradually and not just on arrival.

Similarly, as with the telomeres, the majority of changes of gene expression fully addressed by the return of Scott Kelly’s home. But a few hundred genes seem to remember their time spent in space, and saved changes.

A lot of it or not — and what the consequences for the health of the bears — we just don’t know. We just have nothing to compare. This is very similar to when people started to measure blood pressure for the first time. We just didn’t know what numbers are the norm, not yet measured the pressure of a larger number of people.

While Scott Kelly said that if immediately after landing, it was bad — as is usually the case — now he does not see large changes in health status. “I feel different than when I started, but that’s probably because I’m four years older,” he says.

Next steps for team Bailey will be creating better testing methods for monitoring telomerase activity, either on the ISS or on Earth. Mason is also exploring technology that will eliminate the pressure on the sample during transportation. His team even performed the first DNA sequencing on the ISS and hopes to improve this process. Most of the other scientists hope to get a wider sample size and, possibly, to carry out longer tests. One astronaut is not enough to make final conclusions, therefore, scholars such as Mason, will explore other astronauts during two, six-month and one-year test. Only these missions will not be twins on earth which can compare.

So, you still want to Mars? All the astronauts — in our chat in Telegram.

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