Genetics are often brought up in superhero origins, but how realistic is the science behind the stories? Could a genetically altered spider actually pass on its DNA via a bite? Do mutations in human DNA happen fast enough to create X-men mutations? Is a healing factor even vaguely possible?
For Genetic Counselling Awareness Week 2015, I sat down with Catriona Hippman, past President of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors to talk about Deadpool, genetic counselling, and potential realistic superhero Worm-Man.
A Little Bit About Genetic Counselling and #GCAW2015
While every comic book fan knows at least a little about genetics (even if it's not the most accurate portrayal), many don't know what genetic counselling is. Hippman explains:
Genetic counselling is a service provided to individuals and families that aims to provide information and support about genetic conditions. Genetic counselling helps people make decisions, as well as understand and adapt to the condition in the family.
Some people think of genetic counselling as only for pregnant women or for couples who are trying to have babies, but actually it is a service that almost anyone could potentially benefit from. It can also be for adult onset conditions as well as childhood onset conditions.
GCAW (Genetic Counselling Awareness Week) is a week dedicated to raising awareness of our profession and also helping the public to understand more about genetics, and encourage everyone to think more about their family history, and come up with questions that they might have for a genetic counselor.
X-Men And The Speed Of Human Genetic Evolution
The team with the strongest links to the field of genetics is probably Marvel's X-Men; superheroes whose powers are created by a mutated gene. In X-Men: First Class, the genetic link was made even stronger when Charles Xavier was revealed to be studying genetics at Oxford as a young man. (And using his knowledge to pick up women!)
While the concept of a genetic mutation seems reasonable (the human genome is constantly evolving, after all), could this actually be possible? Is there a mutation that could conceivably lead to the kind of insane power that the X-Men (and their mutant enemies) have? According to Hippman,
Just to give a little background around genes, our body has genes that tell it how to make proteins and how the body should function, basically. There are about 26000 genes in the human body and so often when people think of mutations what that means is a change in that code, where one letter is changed. Sometimes changing that one letter can be enough to change how the body functions and have consequences that result in syndromes, and so those can be quite dramatic or they can be quite subtle.
In terms of having a change that would result in, for example, Angel's wings, that is quite a large scale change. So for that, you would need to have changes at every level as the body is developing. There could be changes over time, for example, on the scale from the dinosaurs from human, whereby maybe someone would have a collection of mutations, so changes in a number of different things, which would then make it possible to develop wings over time. If someone was more likely to want to procreate with someone who had the beginning of wings, then that would continue down through the generations and over time perhaps it would be developing.
So it seems that while it's physically possible for humans to evolve powers, there's simply no way that a mutation could be extensive enough to have it happen in one generation.
Sadly, that means there won't be any need for a school for gifted youngsters any time soon... but on the plus side, there's less chance of the kind of division between "human" and "mutant" that forms the basis for a lot of the struggles the X-Men face. If one evolves new powers, chances are, we all will.
The Last Stand: "Curing" Genetic Mutations
One of the most controversial elements in the X-Men is the concept of a "cure" for mutant powers. While some members think of their super-skills as a gift, for others, it's a curse. Their powers make them different, ostracized. X-Men: The Last Stand dealt with the division that would arise if a "cure" was found, while X-Men: First Class made the question a little more personal as Hank sought a way to make him look "normal"... with disastrous consequences.
If we suspend disbelief (something that comic book fans have plenty of practice with!) and assume that X-Men style mutants are possible, would it be possible to find a cure?
There's a lot of research into curing a variety of genetic syndromes, and over the years there has been a lot of excitement about gene therapy.
There are a number of problems that you have to solve in order to access the tissue that has the gene in question that you are wanting to change. Also, if you are wanting to then have that change passed down through the generations of cells (so that it's not just changing the way that cells function at one particular time, but all of the generations of cells) that requires an additional type of skill and technique. This would theoretically mean that you could have one treatment and then be "cured".
There are actually a number of findings, though, that are the basis for this type of thing and so it's a very hot topic right now. There's a technology called CRISPR (clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats) that's basically germline mutation editing at the level of the embryo (genome editing). So if you make the changes to the embryo, then that gets passed down to all the next generations of the cells. So in some ways it's an ideal time to try and make those changes.
There's a technique that is under development where they actually have a set of cellular machinery that goes in and opens up the DNA double helix and strips out the mutation (the part of the gene that you want to remove). Then the cell is flooded with building blocks and a strand that is inserted to replace the mutated area with the ideal set of instructions, and then those additional building blocks come in and so it's all fixed. But there is a catch! So far this has been done in culture in cells in the lab with not 100% success rate. So when they try to do it, there is success some of the time, but there are also a lot of additional errors that arise, that could have unintended consequences.
All of which means that the most realistic part of the X-Men premise is actually the idea that a "cure" could be found. Catriona also mentioned how, like in the comics, these new technologies are causing a lot of controversy. At a certain point, just because we could be capable of creating "designer babies" and changing the DNA of an embryo, that doesn't mean that we necessarily should.
Genetic Transfer: Spiderman, Insect Bites and DNA
X-Men aside, there are some other very famous superheroes whose stories have a genetics twist to them. Spider-Man, in both live-action versions, is bitten by a genetically altered spider, which gives him his powers. Beautiful shots of DNA-chains being pulled apart aside, how likely is this? First up, do geneticists even use spiders in their research?
The spider isn't a well-used organism. In genetic studies, there's typically worms. Worms are very popular (although Worm-Man would not be!), fruit flies are also very popular. The spider is a bit neglected, I feel like enough people are afraid of spiders that they don't want to work on them!
Let's say, however, that there was someone who just really liked spiders, and wanted to make a super-spider (possibly for a really intense prank). If that spider, having just been genetically modified, bit a human, would some of those changes be passed on?
[In order to pass genetic material via a bite] it would have to be a very sophisticated biting mechanism to be able to transmit DNA in such a way that it would then insert itself into the host's DNA.
The DNA itself would be passed to the organism, because with all of your cells containing your DNA, every time you touch somebody you get some of their DNA, but it doesn't become a part of you. In order to have DNA that would be inserting itself into your DNA, then you would need to have something similar to a viral mechanism. One of the things that they have been trying to take advantage of with gene therapy is [that same] viral mechanism because viruses have some very sophisticated mechanisms even though they are very simple as an organism. Their entire function is to go in to cells and replicate and basically carry on, so there's a way that you could potentially harness a virus's machinery to go in and make some changes to your DNA, but you would need more than just a bite.
Essentially, our spider-loving genetic researcher would have to somehow find a way to change his spider-DNA, and to change the spider's venom to include a viral mechanism to transmit its DNA. That's something that even Oscorp wouldn't do!
Another fan-favorite with some genetically-modified superpowers is Deadpool; the merc with a mouth who submitted himself to experimentation after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His genes were altered to try and give him a Wolverine-style healing factor... which worked! If you consider being physically repulsive and insane a success, of course.
Deadpool's popularity has a lot to do with his attitude, but that healing factor has more than a little to do with it as well. Being able to heal from any injury is incredibly impressive, but is it even possible?
At the BC Cancer agency right now they are doing a project called POGS (Personalized Onco Genomics). What they are trying to do is that they are trying to understand specifically what an individual person's cancer is on a genomic level. So looking at your own genome from when you are born and changes over time in different cells. That's the cause of cancers, when you have two mutations in certain genes it ends up spiraling out of control and the cells are replicating much more than they should. By understanding exactly which genes have been changed for a person's cancer, the idea is that then people can better target the treatment to try and cure that cancer. And they are also trying a concept of immunotherapy; looking at ways to take advantage of the body's immune system to tell the body to target those [cancerous] cells to kill them and get rid of that cancer.
So you could kind of conceptualize that as a bit of a healing factor, except that the goal would be that then once you have eliminated the cancer from the body, that the body would just resume normal function.
What may be possible is something like an enhanced immune response, but not so much the dramatic things. More along the lines of if you are one of the people who have less ability to clot, then there are ways that you could envision trying to enhance that response so that you would heal up faster, but not regenerating limbs quite yet!
The Only Really Realistic Superheroes
Having thoroughly dashed any lingering hopes of developing genetic superpowers, six-packs from spider-bites, or the ability to heal from bullet wounds, we talked about what some of the more realistic examples of genetics in comics might be.
Steve Rogers is one of the most likely candidates (although definitely not with what we knew of genetics in the 1940s!). Because his super-soldier serum is specifically designed to alter human DNA via an injection, it's actually conceivable. The traits being altered (strength, endurance, etc) are enhancements of traits that already exist, so it's more likely that we could create a way to alter them.
Beyond that, most of the genetic superpowers are still firmly in the realm of fantasy. We'll be seeing Iron Man streaking across the sky long before human DNA evolves to the point that a mutant might be able to join him in his flight.