NASA's twin study reveals space travel changes human DNA

Twins Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly are taking part in an ongoing first-of-its-kind twin study with NASA.

Scott and Mark Kelly—NASA astronauts and identical twins—have given countless blood and saliva samples this past year as part of NASA's first twin study. According to the first findings announced by NASA, there certainly are differences between the twins' DNA. But understanding what those differences might mean is a long way off.

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Scott Kelly & twin brother Mark Kelly
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Scott Kelly & twin brother Mark Kelly
BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN - MARCH 26: Expedition 43 NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, left, and his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, pose for a photograph Thursday, March 26, 2015 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Scott Kelly, and Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan March 28, Kazakh time (March 27 Eastern time.) As the one-year crew, Kelly and Kornienko will return to Earth on Soyuz TMA-18M in March 2016. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
During a news conference on Jan. 19, 2015 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly speak to news media about Scott Kelly's 1-year mission aboard the International Space Station. (Photo by Robert Markowitz via NASA)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Carson Daly, Natalie Morales, Savannah Guthrie, Matt Lauer, Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly wears a blue wrist band that has a peace symbol, a heart and the word 'Gabby' to show his support for his sister-in-law U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, as he rested onboard a Russian Search and Rescue helicopter shortly after he and fellow crew members Oleg Skripochka and Alexander Kaleri landed in their Soyuz TMA-01M capsule near the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. NASA Astronaut Kelly, Russian Cosmonauts Skripochka and Kaleri are returning from almost six months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 25 and 26 crews. (Photo via NASA/Bill Ingalls)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - DECEMBER 04: Former NASA Astronauts Scott Kelly (L) and Mark Kelly attend the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: Scott Kelly, Kathleen Kennedy and Mark Kelly attend the 2016 Time 100 Gala, Time's Most Influential People In The World at Jazz At Lincoln Center at the Time Warner Center on April 26, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Time)

Identical twins are like gold to scientists. Because they are born with essentially the same exact genes, researchers use them to understand how the environment interacts with and changes our DNA. But having identical twins that were both astronauts was pure luck for NASA.

Between 2015 and 2016, Scott Kelly spent nearly an entire year—340 days, to be exact—in zero G aboard the International Space Station. Meanwhile his twin brother, Mark, stayed within Earth's gravitational limits (though he did spend 54 days in space between 2001 and 2011). To understand what a year in space does to your body, NASA researchers began studying the twins while Scott was in space—and never stopped.

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First, the differences: After parsing through the data, the researchers found that the lengths of Scott's telomeres (essentially caps that sit at the end of a person's DNA) grew slightly longer while he was in space, but returned to more normal levels shortly after his return. Mark's telomeres got shorter. There were also some changes in both twins' DNA. The number of methylated DNA—methyl groups added to DNA sequences that change the activity of the DNA segment without changing its sequence—decreased for Scott while he was in space and increased for Mark while he remained on Earth.

But the real question is what to make of these changes. As Nature reports, it's quite normal for DNA methylation levels to return to normal once astronauts come back to Earth, because they go through rapid changes in diet (no more freeze-dried meals) and sleep behaviors (in a bed, supported by gravity). But scientists don't yet understand why the twins' telomere lengths changed, and what effect that will have on their respective health.

The next step is to figure out which changes can be attributed to spaceflight and which are just normal consequences of aging. Figuring that out will almost certainly take more than one set of identical twins. If you want to assume that a study's findings can be applied to the general population, you need to conduct that study on a large, diverse group of people. In statistics, the higher the sample size (known as n or number of people in a study) is, the more likely the conclusions that come out of it are going to be statistically significant, meaning they can't be attributed to chance alone.

So while NASA expects to release the full results of the twin study within the next couple of years, we might not ever be able to draw solid conclusions from those findings. Unless the space agency gets a huge glut of twin recruits in the next few years, that is. Anyone interested?

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