Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Sending one identical twin into space while the other stays behind on Earth might sound like the plot of a sci-fi thriller. But it’s actually a setup for some truly fascinating scientific research!
As part of NASA’s landmark Twins Study, Scott Kelly became the first U.S. astronaut to spend nearly a year in “weightless” microgravity conditions aboard the International Space Station. Meanwhile, his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remained earthbound. Researchers put both men—who like all identical twins shared the same genetic makeup at birth—through the same battery of biomedical tests to gauge how the human body responds to life in space. The good news for the future of space travel is that the results indicated that health is “mostly sustained” during a prolonged stay in space.
Reporting in the journal Science, the Twins Study team, which included several NIH-funded researchers, detailed many thousands of differences between the Kelly twins at the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels during the 340-day observation period. However, most of Scott’s measures returned to near pre-flight levels within six months of rejoining Mark on Earth.
Over the past nearly 60 years, 559 people have flown in space. While weightless conditions are known to speed various processes associated with aging, few astronauts have remained in space for more than a few months at a time. With up to three year missions to the moon or Mars planned for the future, researchers want to get a better sense of how the human body will hold up under microgravity conditions for longer periods.
To get a more holistic answer, researchers collected a variety of biological samples from the Kelly twins before, during, and after Scott’s spaceflight. All told, more than 300 samples were collected over the course of 27 months.
Multiple labs around the country used state-of-the art tools to examine those samples in essentially every way they could think of doing. Those analyses offer a remarkably detailed view of changes in an astronaut’s biology and health while in space.
With so much data, there were lots of interesting findings to report, including many changes in the expression of Scott’s genes that weren’t observed in his twin. While most of these changes returned to preflight levels within six months of Scott’s return to Earth, about 7 percent of his genes continued to be expressed at different levels. These included some related to DNA repair and the immune system.
Despite those changes in immunity-related gene expression, his immune system appeared to remain fully functional. His body responded to the flu vaccine administered in space just as would be expected back home on Earth.
Scott also had some measurable changes in telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of our chromosomes. These generally shorten a bit each time cells divide. But during the time in space, the telomeres in Scott’s white blood cells measured out at somewhat greater length.
Potentially, this is because some of his stem cells, which are younger and haven’t gone through as many cell divisions, were being released into the blood. Back on Earth, his telomere lengths returned to an average length within six months of his return. Over the course of the study, the earthbound telomeres of his twin brother Mark remained stable.
Researchers also uncovered small but significant changes to Scott’s gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that play important roles in digestion and the immune system. More specifically, there was a shift in the ratio of two major groups of bacteria. Once back on Earth, his microbiome quickly shifted back to its original preflight state.
The data also provided some metabolic evidence suggesting that Scott’s mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that supply the body with energy, weren’t functioning at full capacity in space. While further study is needed, the NIH-funded team led by Kumar Sharma, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, suggests that changes in the mitochondria might underlie changes often seen in space to the human cardiovascular system, kidneys, and eyes.
Of course, such a small, two-person study makes it hard to draw any general conclusions about human health in space. But the comparisons certainly help to point us in the right direction. They provide a framework for understanding how the human body responds on a molecular and cellular level to microgravity over time. They also may hold important lessons for understanding human health and precision medicine down here on Earth.
I look forward to future space missions and their contributions to biomedical research. I’m also happy to report, it will be a short wait.
Last year, I highlighted the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative. It’s a unique collaboration between NIH and NASA in which dozens of human tissue chips—tiny, 3D devices bioengineered to model different tissues and organs—will be sent to the International Space Station to study the accelerated aging that occurs in space.
The first tissue chips were sent to the International Space Station last December. And I’m pleased to report that more were aboard recently when the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft made a resupply run to the International Space Station. On May 8, astronauts there successfully completed offloading miniaturized tissue chips of the lungs, bone marrow, and kidneys, enabling more truly unique science in low gravity that couldn’t be performed down here on Earth.
 The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight. Garrett-Bakelman FE, Darshi M, Green SJ, Gur RC, Lin L, Macias BR, et. al. Science. 2019 Apr 12;364(6436).
Twins Study (NASA)
Launches and Landings (NASA. Washington, D.C.)
Kumar Sharma (University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio)
Tissue Chips in Space (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases