What happens to the body when it is subjected to extreme conditions like those of the high mountains? How does the expression of the genetic code change, if it indeed changes? To understand this, researchers from the Weill Cornell Medicine of New York (USA) were inspired by a significant study performed by NASA, the American space agency, in which two identical twins (with the same, identical DNA) were assessed three years ago: one had spent 12 months in the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting around the Earth, whereas the other had remained earthbound, in the United States. Researchers monitored both of them, discovering a wide series of changes that had happened to their bodies, despite having the same genetic code.

Now, the subjects of the experiment conducted by Weill Cornell Medicine are a student aged 20, Matt Moniz, and a professional mountain climber aged 49, Willie Benegas, who are on an expedition to Everest and who have taken samples of their own blood, saliva, tear fluid and feces, at base camp 1 (before and after arrival), located at 5364 meters above sea-level and then at base camp 3, at 7300 meters of altitude. Their twins, one monozygotic and one heterozygous (Moniz’ twin), on the other hand, have remained at sea level and have been subjected to the same analyses.

In the twin NASA study, which took cognitive function, changes in the main organs and those of the immune system into consideration, the composition of the microbiome (the “good” bacteria of the intestine) and the expression of DNA, it emerged that 7% of the twins’ genes were expressed differently, and that these changes remained for six months after returning to earth. The most significant changes concerned the immune system, bone formation and the body’s response to different concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide. On that occasion, however, a doubt remained, namely: were the changes due to the absence of gravity or the stress caused by the need to live in extreme conditions such as those of the ISS? Hence, the experiment on Everest, which is currently under way, is considered to be highly significant: the conditions, in this case, although being extreme, are more physiological – so to speak.

The climbers will remain on Everest until the middle of May at least, and will climb to higher altitudes, continuing to perform the analyses and other tests, at the same time as their brothers remaining in much more comfortable conditions. According to researchers the information obtained can be very useful, from both a biological and a medical point of view, for understanding how the body changes when faced with environmental difficulties.

The journal Science is following the two, who have already climbed Everest in the past: Benegas has made it to the top 11 times already, whereas Moniz, on the other hand, only once, before the age of 19, and on that occasion was awarded the title of National Geographic adventurer of the year. Click here to read the full article on Science.

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Journalist since 1983, has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. Creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology, in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is currently President of the Lugano Science Foundation.