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The Effect of Gravity on the Genome

In microgravity - the gravity-free environment experienced by astronauts in orbit - DNA repair mechanisms are impacted, leading to severe DNA damage such as double strand breaks, chromosomal aberrations, and micronucleus formation [1]. These effects are propagated throughout the cell, reducing cytoskeletal focal adhesions and increasing rates of apoptosis [2]. Subsequently, the entire human body is affected dramatically. NASA recently concluded a landmark study and found that the microgravity environment leads to bone density loss, cognitive decline, microbial shifts, anemia and changes in vision [3]. While most effects subsided after 6 months on Earth, many changes to the genome persist, including increased numbers of short telomeres and chromosomal inversions [3].


Our lab explores the effect of microgravity on the dynamics and organization of the human genome. All life on earth has evolved under the presence of gravity, and as physicists we are incredibly excited to change this fundamental variable in the equation of life. By removing gravity, we are able to study the genome in an entirely new system. It is known that the microgravity environment affects DNA repair processes, cytoskeletal architecture, and cellular morphology.

In addition, we are interested in another key space hazard: radiation. In space, humans are exposed to high levels of radiation, due to the absence of the Earth’s magnetic field. This directly causes double strand breaks of DNA in the genome, leading to DNA damage and chromosomal malformations. By exposing cells on Earth to radiation mimicking that found in space, we want to understand how the genome responds to this kind of radiation. 

1. Moreno-Villanueva et. al., NPJ Microgravity, 3: 1-8 (2017)
2. Zhao et. al., Int. J. Mol. Sci., 19: 1994 (2018)
3. Garrett-Bakelman et. al., Science, 364 : 6436 (2019) 

Alexandra Zidovska Lab
Center for Soft Matter Research
Department of Physics
New York University