Multi-omic data from NASA twin study has implications for life in space and on Earth

Why are we getting excited about space on a genomics website, you may well ask? Aside from the fact that we get excited about all things science. Well, Scott Kelly, the US astronaut who concluded his 340 day sojourn on the International Space Station with a sedate parachute descent to Kazakhstan early this morning (UK time), is one half of a unique investigation into how space flight affects the human body. Back on Earth, the effects of prolonged spaceflight on Kelly’s physiology will be compared to the perfect control subject: his Earthbound identical twin Mark, himself a retired astronaut.

The homozygous Kelly twins provide researchers with an unparalleled opportunity to explore not just the physical effects of prolonged spaceflight, but also the potential genomic impacts. Life in space comes with serious physical effects triggered by prolonged exposure to zero-gravity, including bone density loss and vision impairment, not to mention radiation exposure. In addition, Commander Kelly explained from orbit that mental issues such as isolation can also be problem for astronauts. “Physically I feel pretty good,” he said, “but the hardest part is being isolated in the physical sense from people on the ground who are important to you. There’s a loss of connection.”

What NASA are hoping to achieve through comparing Scott and Mark is a better understanding of the underlying biology of these changes, information that could go on to support the organisation’s long-term aim to send human beings to Mars. Understanding in detail how Scott Kelly’s physiology and psychology were affected by his year on the ISS will inform how NASA can prepare and protect astronauts on the six-to-eight month flight to Mars.

But outside of zero-gravity, there is enormous potential for discoveries that could impact healthcare back on Earth. A series of research studies will explore genomic markers for certain diseases, changes in microbiome, and begin to build the first longitudinal human epigenome. From minute variations in individual base pairs to changes in the lengths of their telomeres, the Kelly twins will have some of the most extensively studied multi-omic data in the world. 

Genomics in space is a big theme for Festival of Genomics Boston through our Space: The Final Frontier of Genomics seminar, taking place on 28th June 2016. Find out more at www.festivalofgenomicsboston.com!