NASA and Orphan Black

A few months ago I wrote a post about the (fictitious, and also evil) clone experiment in Orphan Black. I said that comparison of complex traits between a handful of individuals isn’t, even in principle, a ”scientifically beautiful setup to learn myriad things”, but garbage. You can’t take two humans, even if they’re clones, put them in different environments, and expect to learn much of anything.

Funnily enough, it seems like NASA has been doing just that with the NASA twin study: there are two astronauts who are twins, and researchers have compared various things between them and before/after one of them went to space. Of course, those various things include headline-attracting assays like telomere length and DNA methylation (including ”epigenetic age” — something like Horvath 2013, I assume).

The news coverage has been confused — mixing up DNA methylation, gene expression and mutation. But can one blame news outlet for reporting about ”7% changes to his DNA” and ”space genes” when the press release said this:

Another interesting finding concerned what some call the “space gene”, which was alluded to in 2017. Researchers now know that 93% of Scott’s genes returned to normal after landing. However, the remaining 7% point to possible longer term changes in genes related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.

Someone who knows some biology can guess that this doesn’t refer to mutation, but it’s not making things easy for the reader, and when put like that, the 7% could be DNA methylation, gene expression, or something else transient and genomic. (They’ve since clarified that it was gene expression — in some sample; my bet is on white blood cells.)

Now that we’ve made fun of NASA a little, there are some circumstances when we can learn useful things from studies of even a single individual. For example, if Chaser the Border Collie can learn the names of 1000 toys, and learn new toy names through reasoning by exclusion (Pilley & Reid 2011), then we can safely assume that this is within the realm of dog abilities. Another example is a reference genome, which in the best case is made from a single individual, ideally an individual who is as homozygous as possible. When comparing the reference genome to that of other species, we feel confident enough to publish genome papers with comparisons of gene content, gene family evolution, and selection on protein coding sequences over evolutionary timescales. But when it comes to functional genomics, many variable molecular trait measurements all along the genome? No.

The study is not out. It may be better than the advertisement. It’s seems they’ve compared the two men before and after, so they can get some handle on differences that came about in the years leading up to the study. And maybe they’ve run a crazy number of technical replicates to make sure that the value they get from each data point is as a good measurement as possible. And maybe there is data on what happens with these kinds of assays when people do other strenuous things, putting the differences into context. Maybe.

Literature

Pilley, John W., and Alliston K. Reid. ”Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents.” Behavioural processes 86.2 (2011): 184-195.

Horvath, Steve. ”DNA methylation age of human tissues and cell types.” Genome biology 14.10 (2013): 3156.

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