Ever wonder if someone like Cap or the Hulk could ever exist? Is it scientifically possible or simply comic book fiction? Well, according to a Stanford research biologist, the inhuman stamina and strategic wit of Captain America and the fierce strength of the Hulk may not be as fictional as we believe. Sebastian Alvarado of Stanford believes that the secret to super-heroism is epigenetics, or the study of gene expression.
Steve Rogers [Alias: Captain America]
Origin: Young Steve Rogers enlists to the American army during World War II yet is deemed too weak, scrawny, and physically incapable to serve. Nevertheless, the rejected Rogers is instead made a part of an army experiment during which he is treated with Super-Soldier Serum and exposed to Vita-Rays, turning him into the muscular, strategically intelligent patriotic hero we all know and love.
Scientific Explanation: Taking a Super-Soldier Serum seems too simple and easy to be realistic, right? Actually, scientists have been able to identify the specific genes involved in determining muscle mass and number of oxygen-carrying cells and have discovered ways to selectively control these genes. According to Alvarado, “we have a lot of genome-editing tools…that could theoretically allow you to epigenetically seek out and turn on genes that make your muscles physically large, make you strategically minded, incredibly fast, or increase your stamina.”
These genome-editing tools, which include zinc finger nucleases and CRISPR/Cas9 systems, could be introduced into the human body through ingestible pills that release their contents only in the presence of certain wavelengths of light, similar to Captain America’s Super Soldier Experiment.
Bruce Banner [Alias: The Incredible Hulk]
Origin: Physicist Bruce Banner suffers severe radiation exposure after getting caught in the middle of a massive gamma ray blast. Banner survives the explosion but discovers an interesting side-effect of the radiation: he quite literally transforms into a big green monster when he gets angry.
Scientific Explanation: Radiation does directly damage and mutate DNA, which explains why any radiation exposure, including ultraviolet (UV) rays and x-rays (this one is not that dangerous, so don’t stop going to the doctor because of this article!) are dangerous and not highly recommended. Now, imagine getting fully blasted by gamma rays (which are the most powerful form of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum by the way). If you happen to survive like Banner did, your DNA would undergo some pretty insane mutations.
First, your DNA (a double-stranded helix) would split apart, but your body, being the amazing self-healing machine it is, would then fuse the fragments back together. The only catch is that if there are many DNA fragments hanging around, those pieces are not necessarily going to end up back where they originally started (uh-oh). This is where the fun begins. Assuming that your new Frankenstein DNA doesn’t kill you instantly, your body will now start to code for the new genes resulting from your jumbled up DNA. This of course could potentially lead to crazy new characteristics like…uhh…well…freakish height, monstrous strength, and…greenness.
But Banner only turns into a monster when he is mad! Well, Alvarado explains that too. Just like Captain America’s Vita-Rays, Banner’s new genes may only be activated by the hormones he releases when he becomes extremely angry, frustrated, or stressed.
What about the Hulk’s iconic green skin? Our research biologist has two possible explanations for this transformation. When we get a bruise, the hemoglobin in our red blood cells releases a metabolite called biliverdin, causing the blood to look green. Alvarado explains that “Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk would be incredibly traumatic to his body, and maybe his green skin is the result of a whole-body bruise”
(Fun fact: there actually are animals that bleed green blood because their blood contains hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin.)
For those hoping for an even more creative explanation, Alvarado also says that “maybe [the Hulk’s] blood is full of some sort of green Hulk-oglobin, which can carry more oxygen to the muscles than hemoglobin and gives him his strength and stamina.”
Despite the fact that we are far from creating human super soldiers or big green human death machines, Marvel fans and Alvarado both agree that at the very least “it’s fun to speculate.”
Make sure to check out the Incredible Hulk and Captain America’s next action-packed adventure in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, premiering May 1st, 2015.
Do you think that Cap and Hulk are scientifically possible?
Resources: news.stanford.edu, Principles of Life