Space is not a hospitable place. Radiation, zero gravity, and the vast distances between stops make interstellar travel look like a pipe dream right now, but they can be made more manageable with gene therapy. Along with obvious choices like follistatin to fight the loss of muscle mass, anti-aging gene therapies for telomerase induction, and Klotho expression can promote overall health. Keeping the crew healthy is essential when the nearest hospital could be billions of miles away.
In a statement to Astronomy Magazine, Dr João Pedro de Magalhães said “this roadmap sets the stage for enhancing human biology beyond our natural limits in ways that will confer not only longevity and disease resistance but will be essential for future space exploration.” There’s a big overlap between the genes needed to keep people healthy on earth and the genes needed to keep them safe in space.
There are a vast array of genes that will likely prove helpful to making long space voyages safe and comfortable. A vector, like BioViva’s CMV, will be needed to deliver the substantial genetic payloads astronauts will want to take with them into space.
No Gravity? No Problem!
What happens when you throw a pen in the air?
Assuming you’re not in the middle of a tornado, it will probably land on the floor without much ado. This is a reminder that, at least on earth, gravity is always with us. Our bodies don’t tolerate weightlessness very well. Two of the most rapid and noticeable effects of low gravity are sarcopenia and osteopenia. Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, typically takes place over a prolonged period of time. It begins in your 30s and, even when it happens “naturally,” takes a heavy toll. Eventually, it results in frailty and falls in old age. Muscle mass helps prevent insulin insensitivity, and Metabolic Syndrome, both of which are part of a wider range of serious issues like heart disease and diabetes.
Right now NASA only has diet and exercise in its arsenal. While these aren’t completely useless, they leave a lot to be desired. Supplements and lifestyle changes can make a dent in the aging process, but cannot halt or reverse it — making them less than viable options for space exploration. Even if there was a magic pill, space is limited on a ship. Better to pack it into your cells and let them express the desired proteins. Astragalus tea and marathon running don’t hold a candle to telomerase induction with gene therapy.
“Such travel, taking one or more years outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, would take a high toll on astronauts’ health due to exposure to cosmic radiation. So it’s better to start thinking now about how we are going to cope with that challenge.”
– Dmitry Klokov, Section Head of Radiobiology and Health at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Technologies as versatile and powerful as gene therapy can bring science fiction to life. Tardigrades, sometimes called Water Bears, are the hardiest animals on earth. The fact radiation doesn’t bother them is of special interest to anyone who would like to make it to another planet intact. By coaxing human cells to express a protein found in tardigrades, researchers gave them radiation resistance. This would benefit astronauts as well as patients undergoing radiation treatment. Still, this is just the beginning of what gene therapy can do to revolutionize space travel.
Gene Therapy for Longevity and Space Travel
Animal models and a widely publicized twin study have shown epigenetic factors play a role in making more resilient astronauts. Meet the Kelly twins: one went into space and one stayed home. After one year researchers compared how their bodies had changed.
One difference was in their DNA methylation patterns, which are used by epigenetic clocks like TimeKeeper™ to gauge a person’s real (biological) age. The space-faring brother’s white blood cell methylation levels decreased during his time on the International Space Station. Contrary to expectations, his telomeres actually lengthened, perhaps, as the researchers suggested, as the result of regular exercise and a better diet.
Telomerase was not the only gene affected. While understanding the causes and long term effects of epigenetic changes in space will require further research, it’s clear that some genes are more sensitive than others.
Harvard professor George Church has listed a number of genes that could, in the words of the popular media, make the recipient “superhuman.” His nondescript spreadsheet lists the pros and cons of each. They range from decreased risk for type two diabetes to low anxiety to improved learning to tougher bones to giving an astronaut the lung capacity of a free diver.
There is even a gene for reduced odor production, which would surely be appreciated by everyone on the mission. Coping with the challenges of long term space travel can be hard. Fortunately, there are genes that can not only reduce the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety but also boost spatial reasoning.
Gene therapy is one of today’s most promising technologies. It will fight the diseases of old age and let people travel to the far corners of the galaxy. Gene therapy can help us live longer and healthier lives. It promises to bring to fruition some of humanity’s most ancient and cherished dreams.
References and Suggested Reading
Biogerontology Research Foundation. “International Team Publishes Roadmap to Enhance Radioresistance for s.” Astronomy.com, Astronomy, 22 Feb. 2018, www.astronomy.com/magazine/press-releases/2018/02/roadmap-to-radioresistance.
Bittel , Jason. “Tardigrade Protein Helps Human DNA Withstand Radiation (2016): Hacker News.” Tardigrade Protein Helps Human DNA Withstand Radiation (2016) | Hacker News, 20 Sept. 2016, news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17511732.
Crowley, Natalie. “Epigenetic Research for Space Exploration.” What Is Epigenetics?, EpiGentek , 28 Nov. 2017, www.whatisepigenetics.com/epigenetic-research-space-exploration/.
Lu, Chia-Wen, et al. “Sarcopenic obesity is closely associated with metabolic syndrome.” Obesity research & clinical practice7.4 (2013): e301-e307.
Norman, Abby. “Here’s How Future Astronauts Could Survive the Radiation of Space.” Futurism, Futurism, 24 Feb. 2018, futurism.com/neoscope/future-astronauts-survive-radiation.
Robitzski, Dan. “George Church Told Us Why He’s Listing ‘Superhuman’ Gene Hacks.” Futurism, Futurism, 13 June 2019, futurism.com/the-byte/george-church-superhuman-gene-hacks.
Vo, Hai T., Ann M. Laszczyk, and Gwendalyn D. King. “Klotho, the key to healthy brain aging?.” Brain Plasticity 3.2 (2018): 183–194.