Same Genes, Different Worlds

Astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly are set to participate in the ultimate twin study:

In March, Scott – a former International Space Station­ commander and veteran of the space program – departs on a one-year mission to the ISS, alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Meanwhile, Mark, who is now retired from NASA, will stay on the ground, at home in Arizona. A group of researchers will track Scott in space, and his genetic doppelgänger on Earth, to get a fuller picture of the myriad effects of long-term space travel – crucial information if we hope to send astronauts to Mars and beyond.

The twins study brings NASA into a new realm of science, what Craig Kundrot, at NASA’s human research program, calls “21st-century omics research.” This includes genomics (the study of the Kellys’ DNA), metabolomics (their metabolism), microbiomics (the bacteria in their guts), and more. “The twin study is really a baptism for us,” says Kundrot, who’s based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. But there’s another reason NASA has largely avoided this type of research, until now. “NASA has never been in the genetics game for one simple reason,” says Fred Turek of Northwestern University, one of the investigators on the twin study. “Astronauts have only one fear in life: that some scientist is going to find something wrong with them.”