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.