The Science of Marvel
As a young child, many of us have seen if not read comic books and seen the heroes of that world of Marvel and their amazing abilities that seem so beyond our own capacity, but each character seems to have their own biological reasoning for why they are the way they are. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider (Spiderman), Matt Murdoch becomes blind but develops heightened senses (Daredevil), Reed Richards and his closest friends are hit by cosmic rays that their experimental rocket ship travels through (Fantastic Four) etc. Charles Xavier and his X-men are the most biologically explainable creation and yet the most common explanation cannot account for what is possible; if one puts aside the fact that these works are fictional of the creator.
Many aspects that were borrowed from biology are given a fictional edge that allows for the narration of the story and plot. The chronological pictures follow in an order that leads to a story told over a series and with many complicated adventures that will keep the audience riveted.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, the X-men are a unusual group of characters who because of a sudden leap in the evolutionary process, have dormant superhuman powers that become apparent during puberty. Led by a powerful man named Professor Charles Xavier, the X-men fight against powerful villains who wish to destroy humanity and they deal with their own personal issues that come from power struggles and relationships (1). Xavier started a school in West Chester, New York and labeled his first students ‘The X-men’ because they have the extra gene that makes them more advanced than the rest of humanity.
The mutation in their genes allow for the X-men to develop a certain amount of superpowers that are ranging in degrees of power. Telekinesis, shape-shifting, and flight are just some of the abilities that these new breed of ‘humans’ have acquired because gene mutation. The change in their genetic makeup makes them a step above humanity and so the human race fears them and so turns to hate against the mutant population (1).
A mutation in genes is caused by a change in the sequence of the amino acids (3). The genes all follow a certain logical order and when they are disrupted and the encoding becomes different for the organism. The DNA sequence of the gene will determine the amino acid chain that will make up the structure of the organism. The sequence contains three nucleic bases that consist of the codons and the codons specify the amino acid chain in the protein.
Most common mutations tend to lead to a difference in the outward appearance of the organism, but there are certain biochemical mutations that result in genetic differences in the organism (2). Such differences could help to explain, along with the sudden leap in the evolutionary process, how such mutants could exist among humanity without a physical difference.
Mutations such as morphological mutations are what one can find affecting the outward appearance of the organism. Most of these causes come directly from biochemical changes of the genes that will eventually lead to the phenotypic (or more often visible) differences of the organism. For example in our world, albinism is the result of a mutation in the gene and where it converts the amino acid tyrosine to the skin pigment melanin, giving the pale skin and hair as well as red eyes (2).
While most of the X-men retain no visual appearance of their genetic enhancement, their characteristics of powers are chemically different and allow for their abilities. Some of the mutants do have visual differences such as the villainess Mystique, a shape shifting mutant, is able to appear like other humanoid forms but her own outward appearance contains blue skin and orange eyes.
For these two types of mutations to occur, there needs to be a specific environment that the organism is placed into. This environment is called the restrictive condition in the mutation process (2) and could explain why some of the characteristics appear in a later state. In any other type of environment that is not specific to the needed environment (permissive condition), the phenotype expressed would be uncultivated and may possess a different type of characteristic (2).
Mutants in the X-men series often experience the first of their powers when they are in their adolescent years (4). These conditional mutations can only be expressed in certain climates that are sustainable for their genes, usually at an optimum temperature. Since mutations tend to be sensitive to temperature and pH changes, these permissive and wild conditions will make the organism different and possibly lead to a lethal mutation.
Lethal mutations are exactly what they sound like; mutations where the organism will most likely die from its mutation. The more wild alleles have their own specific functions encoded and mutation in the allele will lose the function of the gene. The mutation is called a loss-of-function mutation. If the function is gone completely from the organism and it creates a null of mutation (2).
In spite of a thought that a loss of function allele would be far more common, it is also possible that the new allele will be a new function from the mutation. This new function will also be important and will thus help the organism maybe develop into a higher version and more evolved organism (2).
Ultimately, it is the leap in evolution that gives the X-men their superhuman abilities. In the evolutionary process, organisms must adapt to the changes in their environment. The mutation will occur over DNA replication as the error is a result from the two new daughter cells that come from the parent cells (5). Since the protein of the individual is affected, the traits will soon come to change as well.
Organisms will pass on their genes to the next generation and continue on the evolutionary process. While the X-men is a fictional idea, there is a basis in science on genetic mutation. The evolution of humanity has allowed us (as well as other organisms) to over time develop into what we currently are. It is a fantastical idea to believe that the evolution that will naturally happen could possibly lead to super human abilities, the concept of mutation helps the readers understand where the creators got the basis for their ideas that created a memorable saga.
5. King, Christopher, and Scott, Eugenie C. "Evolution." Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.