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)
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.
Power: Being Hairy
Seen in: Beast (X-Men)
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.
Power: Super Strength
Seen in: Lots
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’.
Seen in: Banshee (X-Men)
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.
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
Seen in: Banshee (X-Men)
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.
Seen in: Wolverine (X-Men)
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.
Power: Being incredibly annoying
Seen in: Jubilee (X-Men)
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.
Power: Rage induced greeness
Seen in: T.I. Hulk (Avengers/Hulk)
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. 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…
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