Flying to Mars? The Twin Experiment That Started It All

In 2014, NASA announced the confirmation of the possibility of past life on Mars. What now is dry and dusty was formerly perhaps a lake, or shallow lakes that were collected by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. Curiosity also collected evidence of rivers that flowed into these lakes, which support possible microscopic life. People have often associated the Red Planet as the next possible planet that humans could inhabit, theoretically, as it is closer to the Earth, and has evidence of life. NASA has taken this idea a step further to reality, and launched their twin experiment to help prepare for a possible journey to Mars.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Scott Kelly and his twin brother Mark participated in tests to examine how space affects the body. Since they basically have the same genetic material, NASA can see any physical changes on the genetic level. To provide data for the tests, both brothers partook in physical and cognitive tests. The duration of the experiment was for a year, with Scott staying in the ISS.

Fast forward to now. The twin experiment has been completed, and NASA has released some preliminary research results over the study. The Integrated Omics investigator, Mike Snyder, reported altered levels of a line of lipids that indicate inflammation from Scott, while Mark had an increase in IPA, a metabolite associated to help maintain normal insulin activity.

Susan Bailey guided the investigation on telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are tandemly, repetitive DNA at the end of eukaryotic chromosomes. They protect the organism’s genes from being eroded during continuous rounds of DNA replication. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps to replenish telomeres by lengthening them. It is known that telomeres tend to decrease in length as a person ages, so it would be expected that after a year, their telomere length should decrease. However, this was not the case. Bailey found that Scott’s telomeres, specifically on his white blood cells, actually increased in length in space. Researchers believe that possible links to this cause may involve the increased exercise and reduced calorie intake while Scott was in space. But as soon as Scott returned to Earth, they began to shorten. On the flip side, telomerase activity increased in both twins.

Other research includes findings with epigenomics (how the environment regulates gene expression), led by Andy Feinberg. His findings include that the level of methylation, which helps prevent transcription of genes, decreased while inflight within Scott’s white blood cells, but all of these things returned to normal when Scott returned to Earth. Mark’s methylation activity actually had an increase, but then decreased back to normal. This may indicate that genes are sensitive to any changing environment, whether that is in space or Earth.

However, these are only a few of the highlights of the preliminary research on the twin experiment. NASA and its researchers are continuing to examine more of the data, and will release more information as more findings become visible. This study has certainly been a long, but a large step forward in realizing the possibility of making space travel possible, and to provide possible predictions as to how a human would be affected on another planet, like say, Mars.

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