Be The Smuggest Parent: Attainable X-Men Powers For Your Awesome Designer Baby

Although I was unjustly robbed of victory in the I’m a Scientist – Get Me Out of Here! Science communication challenge a few weeks ago, I did get to field a lot of great genetics questions from schoolkids. I would say about 80% of them related to the acquisition of mutant superpowers. Most mutant superheroes have powers beyond the scope of what you can achieve through mutation in the real world. On the other hand, some super traits actually do crop up occasionally, and others would definitely be achievable with a little dabbling…

Powers you can’t have

Powers causing really complicated modifications (like X-Man Angel’s wings) are a no-go because they would require a whole new set of genes working in harmony. Whole new neural subroutines and developmental changes could be necessary, making this a tall order to fill. This is not something you can acquire through a random mistake. Genetics is also cruelly shackled to the limits of physics, space and time. This rules out many of the cooler powers possessed by the likes of Storm, Cyclops and Polaris. Most of the bigshot superheroes spend a lot of their time bitching about the burderns of their powers anyway, so maybe it isn’t that great a loss to us after all.

Powers you can have:

All sorts of weird mutations crop up naturally all the time. In most cases they are debilitating – it’s far more likely that a typo in a computer program will mess it up rather than make it more efficient, and it’s the same with genes and proteins. A useful aspect to these mutations is that they tell us what a now broken gene was supposed to be doing in the first place, which can be very hard to figure out otherwise. Once we know what a gene does – be it from an animal or a human – we can start meddling. As all the hand-wringing Daily Mail readers out there tell us, the inevitable result of genetic meddling will be ‘designer babies’. Most of us are pretty on board with the current scope of this: procedures such as selecting for an egg cell which isn’t affected by a horrendous genetic disease from an affected/carrier mother, fertilizing it and re-implanting it by IVF to make a nice healthy child. Really though, why should we stop there? What kind of person would go to the trouble of making a designer baby that didn’t have super awesome mutant powers?? How else are you supposed to guarantee that your kid is better than all the other little screamers? Sure, you could make them tall and blue eyed if you want, but that’s so unimaginative. Therefore, allow me to present my catalogue of totally achievable mutant superpowers you can give your designer baby, mostly from the X-Men universe.

(If you can think of any other series with a good stock of supermutants comment it up and I’ll add them in)

Power:  Being Blue

Seen in: Beast (X-Men)

Genetics:

Changing the colour of your skin can’t be that hard…biallelic expression of the blueness is what would make this a really kick-ass modification. This phenomenon is mostly notably seen in calico cats, and happens when females have to randomly turn off one of their two x-chromsomes in each cell. In cats, it is done at an early stage in development when the kitty-foetus is made of just a few hundred cells. Each cell turns one chromosome off randomly, which is then also turned off in all that cell’s progeny. As the cells divide, patches of cells expressing different alleles appear. Calico cats have many of their pigment genes located on the X chromosome, so lady calicos who have one orange and one black allele get a nifty patchy coat. catbeast

Power:  Being Hairy

Seen in: Beast (X-Men)

Genetics:

Hypertrichosis or ‘werewolf syndrome’ is a rare and only occasionally congenital condition. A study of the few people who have the genetic version has narrowed the causative gene down to a cluster of options on the X chromosome, the most likely culprit being SOX3 gene, which was associated with nearby duplications in several patients2.

This guy would kill it in Shoreditch

This guy would kill it in Shoreditch

Power:  Super Strength

Seen in: Lots

Genetics:

Muscular hypetrophy is common in Belgian Blue bulls. It appears to be linked to the deletion of 11 DNA base pairs in the myostatin gene3. The result is that a truncated version of the normal myostatin protein is made. Normally, this protein is probably a negative regulator of muscle growth. When the gene mutates, this function is lost, leading to the growth of ‘double muscles’ and a god-like level of ‘beefing up’.

http://dailybuzzlive.com/super-mutant-cow-steroids/

A Belgian Blue bull. No photoshop. No steroids.

Power:  Super-hearing

Seen in: Banshee (X-Men)

Genetics:

Human hearing is already pretty amazing: we can hear air vibrations caused by movements as small as one tenth of an atom, apparently1. We are all born with pretty good hearing and slowly destroy it over the course of our lives, but some people can hear better than others: women can hear higher pitches than men (you can test which pitches you and your friends can hear with this!). Fragile X syndrome causes large ears, and arguably therefore better hearing, however it an otherwise unpleasant condition that isn’t really worth this as a benefit. In any case, super-hearing would be horrible considering how unpleasantly loud most of the world is. Embed from Getty Images

Seriously…imagine being able to hear not just the guy next to you’s ipod, but EVERY single poor music choice on your whole train all at once

Power:  Super-sight

Seen in: Banshee (X-Men)

Genetics:

Some women are ‘tetrachromatic’, meaning they have an extra type of cone cell in their eyes. They may not even know it, but while most humans can see a measly million different colours, these women can see 100 million and must have an amazing time at raves. The lack of men with the condition suggests the responsible gene is somewhere on the X-chromsome. Interestingly, tetrachromatic women often have colour blind sons or fathers4. {Information |Description=Sierra, a golden eagle who lives at the San Francisco zoo |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterkaminski/3163654917/ Eagle Eye] |Date=2008-12-27 15:16 |Author=[http://www.flickr.com/people/35034359460@N01 Peter Kaminski] fr

Power:  Regeneration

Seen in: Wolverine (X-Men)

Genetics:

I’m not saying it’s possible to stop a chest full of bullets giving you a bad day, but an active Lin28a gene might be the key to regrowing inconveniently severed limbs. Although yet to be investigated in humans, this gene is active in embryonic mice and allows them to regrow whole limbs in the womb. In early life, Lin28a also provides enhanced healing and some regeneration (limbs/tail tips), but the effect of the gene diminishes rapidly. It works by boosting the body’s metabolism to the point where it thinks it is still in the high metabolism, fast growth embryonic phase of development and cells will just grow wherever they are needed. Unfortunately, in mice >5 days old the effect is lost as their metabolism can’t be boosted back up to this extreme level5. This would probably easily be resolved by eating a load of Mars bars. http://wolverine.x-knights.com/gallery.html

Power:  Being incredibly annoying

Seen in: Jubilee (X-Men)

Genetics:

If we could isolate ‘Mutation X’ I would make a bomb doing prenatal testing for parents who don’t want an accidental Jubilee. I bet I could sell up and buy a yacht….gene of origin TBC; grant applications underway. Source: http://animatedviews.com/2009/x-men-the-animated-series-%E2%80%93-volume-1/

Power:  Rage induced greeness

Seen in: T.I. Hulk (Avengers/Hulk)

Genetics:

I’m afraid the only way I can see of achieving intermittent greenness is photo-active greenosity, not rage-induced colour changing. Photo-active greenness is easily achievable by splicing the GFP gene (green fluorescent protein, originating in jellyfish) into your subject. This gene can be added into entire animals or specific cells with ease and is frequently used in scientific research. When exposed to UV light, GFP absorbs the high energy blue wavelengths and emits lower energy green, causing a lovely fluorescence. Perhaps if you made production dependent on the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol a ragey greeness would be achievable, allowing you the lifesaving skill of knowing when your child is about to have a tantrum while you are clubbing together. 800px-Hulk_odiar_Sarrooooo_Hulk_hate_Tartaaaaar_(2540708438) All these and many more, available from Shooter-Gen X-Babies Inc one day soon!

I can’t believe I managed to resist making a SOX3 joke about my hairy and footwear despising terrier…

References:

1. Dr Bill Bud, Auditory Processing Specialist at University of Newcastle for Ask An Expert: ABC Science http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/07/25/3553426.htm

2. Zhu et al, X-Linked Congenital Hypertrichosis Syndrome Is Associated with Interchromosomal Insertions Mediated by a Human-Specific Palindrome near SOX3, The American Journal of Human Genetics, 2011

3. R. Kambadur, M. Sharma, T. Smith, and J. Bass, Mutations in myostatin (GDF8) in Double-Muscled Belgian Blue and Piedmontese Cattle, Genome Research 1997

4. K. Jameson, S. Highnote & L. Wasserman Richer color experience in observers with multiple photopigment opsin genes, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 2001

5. Shyh-Chang et al, Lin28 Enhances Tissue Repair by Reprogramming Cellular Metabolism, Cell 2013

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55 thoughts on “Be The Smuggest Parent: Attainable X-Men Powers For Your Awesome Designer Baby

  1. This is an incredible article, and something I’m interested in as well (when I write sci-fi or horror stories, I sometimes look at how a certain power or ability could be scientifically possible). Also, I’ve got a couple of powers I’d like to see discussed:
    Telepathy
    Sensing and manipulating electrical/magnetic fields
    Seeing other forms of radiation on the spectrum

    What are the likelihoods of those powers?

    • Hi Rami,
      Great question!
      I actually ramble about the first two in my post ‘3 Bodyparts I would Totally Splice Into Myself’: http://wp.me/p4lK5D-k
      So this is total armchair science based on nothing more than me musing about things, and in no way likely to be possible any time soon…
      Two ways I think telepathy could be attainable on a very low level (real mind reading would never be possible – we think about too many different things in too many abstract ways).
      One is through pheromones (commonly used for communication between insects), which could tell us vague things about stress and sexual attraction. It wouldn’t take much: a more sensitive nose (and more pungent pheromones) but I don’t think we would get anything out of it that you couldn’t glean from behavioural cues.
      Our other shot at telepathy ties in with electrodetection, which you also asked about. Many animals can sense electric fields around them (sharks are a very good example of this – a shark can track prey in pitch black water by following the electrical disturbances caused by its movements (and even its heartbeat!). Obviously your brain runs on electrical impulses…maybe there’s something there? I think the best example of a form of telepathy electrodetection could really give us comes from lamprays, who generate defensive electrical fields but are also able to detect the electrical frequencies of other nearby lamprays. If their own frequency is too similar to that of a neighbour they change the theirs to something new. So basically, they can sense a wave (of varying amplitude and frequency) in others, and modulate their own in response. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a very similar system to verbal communication via soundwaves. Is it really a great leap to think we couldn’t communicate electrically if we had the tools? Granted, we may need to go live underwater for good enough conductance to carry the messages…

      Seeing other fields…well, most insects can sense UV light and snakes of course can sense heat with their tongues. Sharks, again can essentially ‘see’ better through electrodetection than they can with their eyes. Really interesting idea!I think either of those are just a few splices away from being ours!

      Well that’s enough rambling, happy dystopian biopunk future concoction!

  2. Did you also mention to these schoolkids that, even more importantly than adding stuff, you can turn stuff off–bad stuff–and you can do it all on your own by regulating your own inner and outer environment? Did you tell them genes are not a sentence delivered at conception but more like a library that the mind-body actually selects from over time as needed? That these kids have the power to affect their own health in this paradigm? That the few who people know this and use these techniques lead such amazing lives that they seem like superheroes to the rest of the world? Now, THAT would be a valuable Q and A for a bunch of people setting forth into, as the band Genesis ironically has it, “a land of confusion.”

    • You’re very right, genetics is something very different from fate and I would never let a kid go away thinking their life was pre-ordained by the contents of their nuclei. I usually go with the analogy that DNA is the code behind all the software on my computer. They make the machine work, but I decide what I’m going to use it for.

  3. I’ll take “super strength” and “regeneration” quickly enough. Perhaps filter out “incredibly annoying” and add in a hefty dose of telepathy/telekinesis (Jean Gray – X-Men). Also, let’s add in a hefty dose of “water breathing” ala – Aqua Man (Justice League – DC comics). Ok, that sounds about right – get the soup ready and I’ll want my new FEMALE body in about 20 years.

    • Haha I’m afraid telepathy and telekenisis are off the table, unless you can work out which genes would knock in electrodetection! I’m with you that waterbreathing would be one of the best superpowers out there but I think that would be less ‘tinkering’ and more ‘complete structural overhaul’…we can dream though, huh??

      • Not “complete overhaul” so much as you might think. The human form breaths liquids for it’s first 9 months in the form it currently has – all we need to do is maintain that functionality in an post-natal situation. Some cheats have already been worked out using suits and hyper-oxygenated fluids, but we’re not terribly far off from free-diving. I hope.

      • Oh yes, you are right there. I get so caught up in thinking about how to add gills to someone I forget about the important things. You’re right, it could be a piece of cake! We would need to work out how to stop the globin production switch flipping from foetal haemoglobin to the adult form…easy! let’s do this!

      • Oh, and since the custom body I’m ordering in advance will be female, I’ll take the super sight package as well. And if we can find a genetic marker for my hyper-acute spacial awareness/reasoning that I have now, let’s add that in too.

  4. Pingback: Genes Smash! An Oxytricha trifallax story | Loony Labs

  5. Reblogged this on Mummy Spits the Dummy and commented:
    This is awesome. Although, probably only marketable to first-time prospective designer-baby parents. I’m sure parents of second or subsequent designer babies would be far more interested in mutations yielding ‘unrelenting compliance’, ‘keeping one’s hands to oneself’ and ‘freakish sleeping-in abilities’. Just saying. 😉

    • Actually flying is on the list of powers I deem ‘unattainable’ for now – we don’t have hollow bones, and it would take a lot of complex changes to the way we develop to give us wings.
      I say so long as we can still breed with one another we’re all still humans!

  6. Thanks, possibly the best science blog I’ve seen so far. Although – once I perceived (joke, obvious it just felt like this) a green hue and a kinda blue smoke hovering around a lady. Oh yes, now I remember, it was just “body language”, a tenseness, gritting teeth, narrowed eye slits, low rasping growl, etc. She had no idea it was a guy making a scene for fun, until I mentioned the clues. Ha, I honestly have zero attraction to guys in ladies clothes.
    Now to actual people claiming “powers”. about two months ago a massage lady ( talking to and I refused her service) tried to convince me she could see energy, could grab it out of the air and throw it on the ground. I almost choked trying to stifle laughing.

    • Hi, thanks for reading! I liked your blog – short and sharp, with a nice bold style. I think you may want to run your entries through a spellcheck before you post though, I saw a few errors and they tend to break my concentration when I’m reading (although maybe that’s just me)…keep it up!

  7. A very interesting subject. A very good and detailed one.

    How many times have I dreamed of having the ability of Wolverine. Yes, if the baby has the extra power of x-men, then question is ‘Is the baby when grown up will use the power to fulfill the self desire and you it for a good cause?’

    The chances of the former is very high as we humans are known to be more dangerous species on earth that some of the deadliest wild creatures.

    Nevertheless, we can never judge unless we see a good number of live examples.

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