A study found a new gene in space and termed as "space gene."  It turns out NASA’s statement of the obvious was fallout from a bad case of mangled science communication. It started with an attempt on the part of the space agency to drum up publicity for some ongoing research about how Scott Kelly’s year-long stint in space affected his physiology. It was an appealing story not only because he broke the record for long-duration space flight, but because scientists were able to compare samples of his blood, saliva, and urine with his twin brother’s “the perfect nature versus nurture study.

Earlier this year, many news organizations reported a “space gene” had mysteriously become activated and caused Scott Kelly’s genetic code to change. How this happened was not explained. The news prompted both Mark and Scott to tweet that they no longer had to call the other an identical twin brother. This was, in all likelihood, a joke, since the twins are known for this sort of banter.

But the humor might have been lost on “The Today Show” and others that turned the alleged de-twinning of the Kelly brothers into serious news. The original NASA press release doesn’t define “space gene,” but introduces it as if the reader is supposed to know what it means. Mason said he meant for the term to apply to all the genes affected by space flight 7% of Kelly’s approximately 60,000but for some reason, NASA’s press releases added to the confusion by referring to a singular space gene.

Excessive DNA damage can cause cells to become malignant. People develop mutations here on Earth, too, especially in cells that divide fast or are exposed to the sun.  Mason said that indeed researchers are trying to get a measure of how space flight changes mutation rates. As it turns out, the press release in question was supposed to be about something called gene expression.

Gene expression, a real scientific term, that explains how bone and skin and liver cells hold the same DNA but do different things. Environmental influences can change gene expression in different cells, and this can influence human health. The researchers say they need more data to know how much gene expression would differ between identical twins under normal circumstances or went on a diet or got a virus.

Communication experts sometimes warn scientists to avoid technical jargon and instead to come up with catchy phrases like “space gene.” That’s good advice if your goal is to get breathless coverage on “The Today Show."

The scientists don’t yet know what caused the change in gene expression. Some might be related to the effects of microgravity, others to sleep disruption or radiation exposure. Some might have nothing to do with space. They would have been better to emphasize the term “gene expression” in the press release, so reporters unfamiliar with the concept would at least know what they didn’t know.