For many years, superheroes, and villains have dominated pop culture. Whether it be an accidental run-in with gamma radiation or the result of a top-secret government science experiment, these seemingly everyday people acquire the ability to save lives, or destroy them, with their ‘enhanced abilities.'
However, we can’t help to imagine whether these abilities are only possible in the world of science fiction. You also can't deny that you haven't answered this question at least once in your life: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? As science advances and we begin to understand more and more about the human genome and its repercussions, think twice about your answer to this question because it might just come true.
As far-fetched as the idea of reading minds is, scientists at the University of Cambridge believe there may be a DNA basis in the ability to read the minds of others through their eyes. In a study known as the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, the team aimed to determine the levels of cognitive empathy, which proved to be too high or too low in individuals with various forms of psychiatric conditions. 89,000 participants from around the world were asked to identify differences in photographs of eyes, noting what emotion was felt by the individuals in the photographs. Following the Eyes Test, all participants underwent genetic testing, and the team looked for links between their results and their genes.
The results showed a few different correlations. First, women showed a tendency to score higher than their male counterparts. These women also showed an increase in variation on chromosome 3 that was found only to be found in women with the high scores, showing no relation to better scores in males.
Upon further investigation of this chromosomal region, it was found to include a gene called LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Repeat Neuronal 1). Although not well characterized, the gene has shown to be active in the striatum region of the human brain. Coincidentally, this region of the brain was determined to play a role in cognitive empathy through the use of brain scanning.
We may not be able to hear someone else’s thoughts, but the idea is that genes can play a role in our ability to feel empathy towards another person. This means that we can put ourselves in another person's shoes. But how does this occur and what part of the brain is responsible for this?
The simple answer to this is Mirror Neurons. These were first discovered by neuroscientists working on macaque monkeys. The team noticed a region of cells in the premotor cortex that responded directly to the emotions of others.
Vittorio Gallese, one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons and neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy, further explains that "We share with others not only the way they normally act or subjectively experience emotions and sensations, but also the neural circuits enabling those same actions, emotions and sensations.” This he calls the mirror neuron system.
Taking both mirror neurons and the LRRN1 gene into play, there is much research that needs to be done to discover how they can be exploited to increase cognitive empathy in individuals. Not only could this have the potential to make you more like Professor X or Doctor Strange, but it could also be effective in treating many neurological deficiencies, such as autism and schizophrenia. In these disorders, individuals have a form a suppressed or deficient neural systems which reduce their ability to understand the world around them. The ability to provide genetic treatments that would potentially introduce either of these forms of neural networking would drastically increase the quality of life of these individuals.
Though not as flashy, super immunity could arguably be the most practical "superpower." Immunity to diseases or suppression of childhood disorders in your body makes you a walking mutant. Not only would this type of mutations potentially allow you to survive the next world epidemic, but they could also hold clues to discover ways to prevent the same disorder or disease.
Eric Schadt of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York and Stephen Friend of Sage Bionetworks thought of a unique plan like in attempt to find these mutants.
“If you want to find a way of preventing disease, you shouldn’t be looking at people with the disease. You should look at people who should have been sick but aren’t” explains Friend.
Their study, therefore, aimed to find healthy individuals who contain codes in their genes for a severe genetic condition for which they should have symptoms. After analyzing 589,306 genomes, they were able to narrow it down to 13 individuals who contained the genetic mutation for eight different disorders. Along with each individual's health records, they were able to declare that this patient did not exhibit the disorder associated with their genes. This means that these 13 people had a way of turning off the expression of these genes, which makes them extremely important to the discovery of treatments for the disorders they carry.
However, there was one problem with the study. The genetic samples they had gotten were only partial samples, and due to the consent forms signed by participants, the subjects were all unable to be contacted for follow up. To further investigate, the duo is launching the Resilience Project with Jason Bobe, also from the Icahn School of Medicine. The goal is to sequence the genome of 100,000 individuals to find similar cases, with the potential for the individuals to be re-contacted if they carry a gene of interest to the group.
In addition to this study, other scientists were following the same approach around the world, and many other "super immune" humans were found around the world. One of the most well known of these individuals is Stephen Crohn, a man who contained a genetic mutation called delta 32 in his CD4 immune cells that allowed him to be immune to HIV.
Bill Paxton, an immunologist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre, and one of the first to work with Crohn, says “from studying him and people like him, we actually did move HIV research forward. And there are drugs out there now which, from Steve's findings, are highly beneficial to stop the virus from replicating”.
But How Can You Get Your Super Powers?
You can thank a group of microbiologists and two biohazardous bacterium for this answer. First published and patented in 2012, Charpentier and Doudna discovered Cas9, a protein that when used in conjunction with Rodolphe Barrangou's CRISPR, a cluster of repeating DNA identified in 2005, had the potential to be used in gene editing.
In the years to follow, Crispr-Cas9 became a game changer in the field of genetics. The complex was able to slice a precise region of DNA and replace it with virtually any piece of DNA the researcher wanted. It quickly became a race to discover the best possible way to introduce Crispr and Cas9 into the human genome, as well as a patenting war between Doudna and Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Crispr-Cas9 has become of huge interests to make different biotechnology companies around the world. The implications are endless from treating illness to artificial selection in crops. If we know the genes that we want, we could ultimately just have them implanted into our bodies. But where do we draw the line? This would allow people to select what traits they want in their children, ranging from hair colour to the enhanced abilities mentioned in this article. Genes have become like blueprints, and we could essentially create genetic superheroes as long as we know the gene sequence required for the trait of interest.
In the world of X-men, the team carries an “X-gene” that gives them mutant abilities. Although there is no human equivalent of this gene, there are many individuals who carry genes that would be similar to those of superhumans, without sprouting giant wolverine claws out of your hands.
There are humans living today with genetic variations that allow them to stand out above the rest. Take Eero Mantyranta, an Olympic skiing champion from Finland. He was shown to have an extremely advantageous mutation in the erythropoietin receptor protein which allowed his blood to carry 50% more oxygen than the average person.
Or how about Liam Hoekstra, a young boy from Michigan, USA, who has a mutation which causes him to be unable to make protein myostatin involved in the creation of muscle. This makes Hoeskstra have a larger muscle mass, with little to no fat, making him much stronger than his peers essentially giving him "super strength."
The list of these types of individuals is endless, all with unique and rare abilities. The amazing thing is that with modern advances in genetic testing and editing, you could essentially change your genes or the genes of a developing fetus. The technology is almost here, all that is needed is for us to completely understand the ramifications of Crispr-cas9 and how it can be used to manipulate the human genome is specific.
So the next time you think about the superpowers you wish you had, there might be something that you can do actually do about that! Perhaps one day you will be able to have these gene put into you or your children.