The human body is an extraordinary piece of biological machinery that over the centuries we have pushed to new extremes. We have invented flying machines, developed new medicines, built advanced computing devices and launched rockets into space, testing the mental and physical resolve of the human body. We have run faster and further, jumped higher and longer, climbed the highest mountains and swam to the depths of the oceans. We are astonishing. We are truly super.
But in recent years, Hollywood superhero films have reminded us of the amazing feats we have yet to master. While superheroes such as Superman and Captain America may take their extraordinary gifts for granted, we can only look on in astonishment as their superpowers save the world and defeat evil.
In June 2016, a group of scientists and industrial proponents outlined Genome Project-Write in the journal Science, a project with the principal aim of building a fully synthetic human genome. Although this project could have positive implications for drug development and gene therapy, those central to the project envisage the possibility of creating a generation of fully synthetic humans, more advanced than current humans. Initial forecasts suggest that it might require $100 million and at least 10 years just to kick-start the project. As a result Genome Project-Write could be years from creating “super-humans”.
But do we have already the biological and technological means to create superheroes with superpowers? Incredibly the answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. We are getting closer to a superpower world.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, after waking from an entombment of thousands of years, the immortal Apocalypse (En Sabah Nur) is shocked at the path humanity has taken. He believes that humanity has lost its way and that human society needs to be reshaped under his guidance. Apocalypse is seen by many as the first mutant in the X-Men Universe and therefore the first to carry the X-Gene, the genetic code central to the powers of the X-Men. Without the X-Gene, Professor Xavier wouldn’t have his incredible telepathic powers, Wolverine wouldn’t have the ability to rapidly self-heal and Cyclops wouldn’t be able to shoot energy blasts from his eyes.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project (HGP), we have identified all of the genes in our DNA. When expressed in the body, genes can lead to the production of RNA and proteins such as collagen and haemoglobin. But if we somehow managed to synthetically create an “X-Gene” that could give someone superpowers do we have the means to include it in our DNA? The answer is yes and the tool is known as the CRISPR/Cas system. Adapted from the defence mechanisms of bacteria, the method can be used to “slice” or “cut” DNA at targeted locations. After cutting, it is possible to insert a new gene such as the X-Gene behind Wolverine’s accelerated healing powers. However the tool can also be used to disrupt or destroy those genes that may lead to future ailments or diseases.
Although CRISPR/Cas has been used to genetically modify crops and zebrafish, it will be some time before the method is used to genetically modify the human genome. There are ethical, financial, scientific, religious and societal issues that must be addressed before the CRISPR/Cas method is widely implemented. In the meantime we’ll just have to make do with the edited mushrooms that don’t brown or zebrafish that now grow limbs rather than fins. But if the world accepts the process as a safe and reliable method for genome editing, we may very well be able to engineer the X-Men.
Now you see me, now you don’t
While genetic editing provides a viable path towards biologically engineered superpowers, it may be years before the first X-Men-like people appear in the real world. But rather than choosing a genetic-editing path, there is a considerable possibility that modern technological research projects will yield superpower-like gadgets sooner rather than later.
The power of invisibility has been the subject of a number of science fiction adventures since H.G. Wells’ 1897 book The Invisible Man. Invisibility has played a part in Harry Potter films, the 2004 film The Incredibles and the 2000 science fiction film Hollow Man starring Kevin Bacon. However, long before Harry Potter came to Hollywood, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics gifted one of their most famous characters with the power of invisibility – Sue Storm. Also known as the Invisible Woman, Sue is part of the dynamic superhero team The Fantastic Four, battling villains such as Doctor Doom or Galactus.
The key to making anything invisible is to prevent reflected light from the object from entering our eyes. If the light doesn’t reach our eyes then the rods and cones in the retina, which is located at the back of the eye, won’t be able to produce electrical and chemical impulses that are interrupted by the brain to form an image. Transformation optics is the field of research dedicated to development of invisibility technologies and researchers are investigating a number of materials that could be used to create an invisibility cloak.
For example some researchers are fabricating artificial materials known as metamaterials that can be used to bend light around objects. The key to the functionality of many of these materials is that they possess a negative index of refraction, a property that’s not found in the natural world. These metamaterials work well for long wavelength sources such as microwaves.
However, as the wavelength decreases towards the visible spectrum it becomes more and more difficult to manufacture metamaterial structures that can bend visible light. As a result some researchers have turned to calcite crystals to create invisibility technologies while two researchers at the University of Rochester have taken a simpler, and novel, path towards invisibility. Joseph Choi and John Howell have opted to build an invisibility cloak using optical lenses that can be bought for less than £100. Yes, you could build an invisibility cloak at home.
Producing Spider Silk
Sue Storm developed her superpowers thanks to a genetic modification caused by, depending on which comic book origin story is gospel to you, either cosmic rays or inter-dimensional travel (note: avoid cosmic rays – these high-energy particles are more likely to kill you than give you with superpowers). Spider-Man is another notable Marvel character who gained their superpowers through genetic changes after his alter ego Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. After the bite, Parker develops many spider-like abilities such as wall climbing, but he also masters the production and manipulation of spider silk. Spider-Man in the 2002 film Spider-Man can naturally produce spider silk while Spider-Man in the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man constructs his own web-slingers.
Like collagen in the human body, spider silk is a protein and one of the strongest natural materials on the planet (it could comfortably stop a train for instance). Given these properties, many have envisaged using spider silk as an alternative for existing bulletproof technologies. In fact, Dutch bio-artist Jalila Essaïdi has created a bulletproof skin that incorporates spider silk, which although won’t block bullets travelling at normal speeds, is a promising start. In addition, spider silk is being considered as an alternative material for parachutes, fishing lines and even replacement ligaments for the human body.
But how can we get access to ample amounts of spider silk? Professor Randy Lewis at Utah State University is at the forefront of mass-producing spider silk with genetically modified goats. Spider DNA has been combined with goat DNA to create “spider-goats” that when milked, produce spider silk in their milk. It’s astounding science and a prime example of thinking outside the box. Now that we have a way to mass-produce spider silk, a material that is many times stronger than most alloys of steel, we could, in the future, build web-slingers.
No Suit like an Iron Man Suit
Captain America: Civil War saw the return of Iron Man, but many contend that Iron Man isn’t a real superhero and that he just invented a suit that gives him superpowers. It is hard to disagree with this statement but Tony Stark’s scientific and engineering developments are no different from those researchers trying to develop invisibility cloaks or spider silk bulletproof skin.
Stark has invented some incredible devices over the years but perhaps his greatest invention is the Iron Man suit, which can fly like an aircraft, fire multiple weapons from various locations, has an advanced on-board computer and provides Stark with augmented protection for his body. Without the suit he’d never have been able to battle Thor in The Avengers, the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America in Captain America: Civil War.
In the 2008 film Iron Man, Tony Stark reveals that the suit is made from a gold-titanium alloy. Up until recently, the only application for this type of alloy in the real world was in dental fillings and jewellery. However, a group at Rice University in Texas has developed a new titanium-gold alloy known as titanium-3 gold. The secret to creating the material was to mix three parts titanium with one part gold at very high temperatures. Titanium-3 gold is about 3-4 times harder than most steel alloys and will most likely be in replacement joints for the human body. But now that we have the supposed alloy used by Tony Stark for the Iron Man suit, might it be time to start integrating the material with advanced exoskeletons such as the one being developed by the Japanese company Cyberdyne? You never know, the Iron Man suit could become a reality sooner rather than later.
The battle between the eponymous heroes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was fuelled by Bruce Wayne’s desire to manage superpowers, in effect to manage Superman. This drastic course of action led to their eventual cooperation, and along with Wonder Woman, they battled the fearsome Doomsday.
The steps taken by Bruce Wayne to manage a super-being such as Superman are extreme to say the least. On the other hand, Captain America: Civil War explores the introduction of the UN-led Sokovia Accords to monitor and control the world’s superheroes. On paper the Accords seem logical and well founded, but they fail to account for the fractures that develop between former friends and allies such as Iron Man and Captain America. Their battles in Civil War are a testament to the difficulties we will have in the future when superpower technologies become widespread.
Before we introduce superpowers to the masses we need to carefully analyse society and then decide how and when these powers should be introduced. We need logical controls and the ability to easily change or update these technologies without disrupting society. We may be years away from a superpower world given that many of the researchers working on invisibility suits, bulletproof technologies and Iron Man-like exoskeletons are funded by military research grants. As a result it will be the military that first benefit from superpower technologies while the rest of world looks on yearning to be the next superhero.
Planning for your Super-Future
Although researchers are on the right track towards creating superpowers, we will still have to wait a long time before these technologies are available to purchase online or in our stores. Projects like the “Genome Project-Write” foresee a biological route towards creating advanced synthetic, and possibly super, humans. However it will be many years before the first synthetic superhero is born.
Until then, those craving superpowers (including myself I must add) will watch promising technological research with interest and, of course, embrace the latest cinematic superhero adventures.
Although Avengers: Endgame draws the current Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close, there will no doubt be plenty more super hero adventures to fuel the world’s appetite for superpowers. If you do manage to get superpowers in the future, it’s imperative that you pick a catchy name and get yourself a cool costume. Prepare yourself for a fantastic future, because scientists are slowly, but surely, revealing the secrets to real life superpowers.
Barry W. Fitzgerald is a Research Scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology, whose new book Secrets of Superhero Science is available now from secretsofsuperheroscience.com. Watch his TEDx Talk about super heroes here.
- This article was first published in September 2016