Best of NG - Astronaut genes

03 January 2016

Interview with

Frank Jiggins, Cambridge University

Kat - As well as news and interviews, we're always happy to try and answer your genetics questions. And with Commander Tim Peake currently holed up on the international space station, what better query to revisit than this one from June 2012 from @ironmunya on Twitter, who asks "Are there genes that make people better suited to become astronauts?"

To answer, we spoke to Dr Frank Jiggins from the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University.

Frank - Certainly, astronauts suffer from all sorts of health problems and most medical conditions have some genetic component, so there's genetic variation amongst individuals as to how likely they are to develop these conditions. So at least in theory, you should be able to predict which individuals are likely to develop these conditions and they'd make the better astronauts. So for example, one of the problems is the effects of low gravity which can result in muscle wasting and reduced bone density, and we know from people on Earth that there's a lot of genetic variation in these traits. About 20 genetic variants have been identified that affect bone density. So you could maybe pick individuals which had the better genetic variants and maybe they'd be less likely to develop these conditions.

Another problem that an astronaut might develop is space adaptation syndrome which is a type of motion sickness. This generally only affects about half of astronauts. So it's possible that maybe there's a genetic component there and if we could identify it, we might be able to predict those astronauts which would develop this problem.

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