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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Astronauts are Returning to Earth with Altered Genes

Since the dawn of space exploration in the mid-twentieth century, it's been many people's dream to venture into outer space at least once. While some commercial spaceflight firms offer trips into the great black vacuum, these are out of the price range of most individuals. However much many of us dream about leaving the clutches of Earth's gravity and staring down at our planet from above, spaceflight does not come without its health risks.

Source: Mysterious Universe | by Brett Tingley

Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly have been undergoing NASA's "Twin Study" to track which health risks in space may have an underlying genetic cause.

Aside from the ever-present danger of exploding on launch or burning up upon reentry, spaceflight has been recently found to increase the risk of many cardiovascular diseases, and scientists don't know why. Furthermore, it's long been known that time in space exposes astronauts to extremely high levels of radiation and can permanently affect astronauts' vision.

Astronauts have reported blurry vision since the birth of space exploration.

Now, scientists have found even more worrisome news for would-be space travelers. In a study published in the journal npj Microgravity, researchers have found that spaceflight is causing permanent genomic alterations in astronauts who have spent time in orbit:

Using an array comprised of 234 well-characterized stress-response genes, we profiled transcriptomic changes in six astronauts (four men and two women) from blood preserved before and immediately following the spaceflight.

Each of the astronauts in this study participated in space shuttle missions which lasted only between 10 and 13 days. The changes were found to occur in genes responsible for DNA repair, protein folding, and oxidative stress, which is thought to be involved in the development of cancer, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease. 

Astronauts' health is a prime concern as more commercial space exploration firms begin to eye space colonization.

While these genomic changes have been documented, scientists still do not understand the mechanism causing these changes:

The molecular basis of spaceflight-induced responses remains unclear and may provide critical insights into health outcomes associated with space travel.

I don't know about you, but I'd say it's still totally worth it. Come on, it's space. Outer. Freakin'. Space.

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