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Previous parts here:

Creating a scientifically semi-valid super-soldier, part 1: Skeleton
Creating a scientifically semi-valid super-soldier, part 2: nervous system
Creating a scientifically semi-valid super-soldier, part 3: Physical shock resistance
Creating a scientifically semi-valid super-soldier, part 4: respiratory system
Creating a scientifically semi-valid super-soldier, part 5: Heart and circulatory system

So you've designed a supercreature for those hard tasks in space. Whether it's a miner, a soldier or something else, they are going to be prone to damage to themselves and their suit. Or you might have a police force that has to deal with a lunatic carrying a particle beam. "No biggie!" you think, "they are designed to take some damage!" Then after a little while the cancers start popping up all over their bodies and they die horrible deaths, or keel over on the spot from acute radiation poisoning.

Don't let that happen to you! Our scientists have found various ways (I hope) to build in radiation protection regardless of that radiation being from space, the scatter of radiation of a particle beam or just some emergency repairs of your local nuclear reactor.

The solutions would need to be buildable, maintainable and repairable by a biological creature. If you know a way you can build a metallic plastic or whatever that fits the bill it's OK.

My own idea's to reduce the effects of radiation: Direct protection. Build in Borium Nitrate Nanotubes (BNNT's, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boron_nitride_nanotube).

BNNT's can be used to protect against various types of radiation (https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/638828main_Thibeault_Presentation.pdf). BNNT's could surround hydrogen which also absorbs some radiation. Unsure of the amount of radiation it can hold. BNNT's could double as insulators for nerves, self-healing blunt-force-trauma absorbtion (see first link) and have a great resistance to heat. (ofcourse, it might not be very reasonable for a biological body to try and build, maintain and repair BNNT's).

The second method of radiation protection would be regeneration. Not sure if it's possible, but life on earth has been able to create new and stable stemcells in their children. If an engineered creature can create brand-new stemcells and force aging or damaged cells to be replaced by the produce of this stemcell, you could periodically renew all cells, keep the body young and repair damage by replacing radiation-damaged cells ASAP to prevent cancer from beginning.

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If genetics are a protocol for carrying information forward through time, then radiation can be considered background noise on that medium. Small bits of information are lost or changed by the presence of that noise, eventually leading to a substantive change or even total loss of the message.

We can combat this genetic noise the same way we defeat noise in other communications media.

  1. Add checksums to each block of data. For every few genetic pairs, add an additional pair which encodes a numeric proof that the other pairs are valid.
  2. Add massive redundancy within each group of genetic pairs, then use a majority rules approach to interpreting them.

To improve longevity in extremely hostile (noisy) environments, a data repair mechanism could also be added to periodically traverse each cell's entire genetic code, checking each checksum and copying those with valid checksums over their damaged redundant copies (applying majority rules to resolve any contention). This would restore the entire code to its original state, helping to avoid the possibility of cumulative corruption which might otherwise overwhelm these defensive measures.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds very promising. Perhaps you could have the checksum be performed by the cell and a "virus" the body itself produces. When a cell undergoes division to create a new cell it invites a "virus" to enter it, which will insert an RNA sequence that will test the DNA's checksums against the DNA. This RNA sequence is required for celldivision, if too many mistakes are found the RNA sequence will not function and the cell will never divide and eventually die, perhaps luring stemcells for replacement. This gives the body time to build new cells in case of massive radiation poisoning $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan this virus could be a single point of failure. Imagine what'd happen if that virus would be altered by radiation, and the body's cells are checked (by whatever mechanism) against an incorrect checksum. Your virus only spreads upon identification of a faulty cell, so this would become a huge problem, quickly. The virus can't spread from healthy cells, because doing so would require the cell to split to produce the virus, essentially destroying healthy offspring. $\endgroup$ – Orphevs May 4 '18 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Orphevs If the virus is altered by radiation it is unlikely to succeed and allow the cell to divide. If it erroneously thinks all checksums are valid, the cell still needs to be cancerous and during the next division a new virus would in al probability stop the cell from reproducing. One way to support this is to have the virus created during celldivision. The cell is checked for faults and approved, then the cell checks the virus and if nothing is wrong it'll reproduce the virus a lot and stop when division is done. This creates a small period during division where genetic faults could occur $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ There are genetic defects (e.g due to radiation) occurring daily in the human body. Most of those faulty cells just die, and most of the cancerous ones can be combatted by the body. The issue is the fact that although it's unlikely for faulty, functional (cancerous) DNA to occur, it is still possible. So while your virus will just simply fail to reproduce if altered by radiation in most cases, the cases where it doesn't are the ones that could mean trouble. Minor mutations occur often, and more so during replication, so you don't want a checksum that has to be copied more often than the rest. $\endgroup$ – Orphevs May 4 '18 at 8:57
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When in doubt, steal from Nature!

There are two ways to deal with cancer in your super-soldiers. One is to avoid it, the other is to fix it. Why not a little of both?

Damage Mitigation

It is well-documented that naked mole rats have extremely low incidence of cancer. 1,2,3

There are also several other types of organism known to be cancer-resistant, including some types of whale (also discussed in ref. 2). There's even a type of fungus that is radiotrophic, meaning they "eat" radiation! The molecule they use to do it is already present in abundance in the human body: melanin. With high-tech gene editing, it is hypothetically possible to bootstrap the process used by this fungus, and the strange intracellular sugars that keep naked mole rats mostly cancer-free, to drastically reduce the danger of ever getting cancer in the first place.

Repair

What is the root cause of cancer? DNA damage which leads to uncontrolled cell growth. How can we stop that? Repair the DNA. You may have heard about lobsters and their telomerase. If not, telomerase is an enzyme that repairs DNA damage, which is the root cause of the "immortal lobster" myth. Humans have telomerase, too, but the way in which we express it in our cells differs from that of lobsters. Again, with sufficiently advanced genetic engineering tech, this is another problem Nature has already solved. If we can borrow the telomerase expression exhibited in lobsters and other crustaceans, we can enhance your soldier's life expectancies and cancer resistance in one fell swoop.

The Punchline

The amount of genetic editing necessary to equip humans (or a human-like species) with the ability to resist cancer, and recover from it is not negligible, but the solutions to these problems already exist. With enough editing, your super-soldiers will be happily (mostly) cancer-free.

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    $\begingroup$ The whole melanin potentially protecting from gamma radiation via free-radical scavenging is touched on slightly in a question I asked a while ago about moon colonist skin colour selection pressures: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/108526/48681. One of the answers I liked mentioned having high melanism in the majority of the body's tissues as gamma radiation is highly penetrative. So, if that paper's conclusions are correct then we might see both literally (and probably figuratively) black-hearted supersoldiers (along with everything else). $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith May 3 '18 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. The question that arises is "does this effect work against radiation as well?". I'm not sure if the cancer resistance of the Naked Mole Rat would be as 100% efficient when it's bombarded by radiation. On the other hand the first article mentions scientists trying to induce cancer in naked mole rats so it's likely they tried radiation. The repair system sounds wonderful, but will this system not be as prone to damage as the rest of the DNA? Wouldn't damage to the telomerase production cause erroneous repairs? $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan, yes, damage to the part of the genome responsible for telomerase production would cause those damaged cells to produce it incorrectly. The idea of the scheme would be to produce it more or less everywhere, so that you have a lot of it on-hand, including in those cells which have just been damaged. Then, they can self-repair the damaged telomerase-production genes. Of course, it isn't a perfect system; everything breaks eventually. But this would buy a lot of time. $\endgroup$ – R. Barrett May 4 '18 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @R.Barrett That's a good point. Build the stuff prior to damage, use it afterwards. Question, how long and well can it be stored in the body? $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 6 '18 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan According to this article ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9380696, telomerase has a half-life of approximately 24 hours in the human body. I'm not able to find results on what the minimum effective concentration is for it to work, but after a week of zero production, you'd have about 1/128th of the original amount left, which would ideally be long enough for the original stockpile to have done its job. $\endgroup$ – R. Barrett May 7 '18 at 14:28
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Poliploidy.

Long-term damage (cancer etc.) can be dismissed as irrelevant - after all this is a soldier, probably it's not even directly fertile (you want soldier production to be centralized). So, all the (considerable) energy that a super-correction mechanism would entail can be used elsewhere.

You don't need to incorporate any specific defense in the skin (it's just as easy to supply the soldier with a lead-lined T-Shirt only when really necessary, since highly radioactive battlefields are probably not so common).

What remains is make the soldier resistant against extreme doses, i.e. have him survive a Demon Core event. For that, we copy the architecture of Deinococcus Radiodurans, a microorganism capable of surviving thousands of times a dose of radiations which would be lethal to a human being:

  • DNA repair mechanisms to identify and undo any damage
  • redundant copies of chromosomes (polyploidy) to ensure that a critical damage will not shut down the cell.

Radioprotectors such as iodine and potassium supplements would not be needed since they're designed against long term exposure, and the supersoldier's thyroid is neither going to scavenge radioactive iodine from locally grown food, nor to hang around long enough to accumulate other radionuclides.

Therefore, the main threat is neutrons, gamma rays and heavy alpha emitters. The last are only worrisome if inhaled, so it might be worthwhile to supply our soldier with a (disposable) thick mat of nose hair. Unsightly, but very efficient and useful against other kind of threats too (e.g. dust storms, airborne microorganisms etc.).

Lightweight, redundant DNA

Our soldier would be designed almost from the ground up, so it might have a lot less "junk DNA" than a vanilla human being (those functions that noncoding DNA has can be rewritten using coding DNA, and still allow leaving out nine tenths of the genome).

This has two important consequences:

  • there is a lot of extra coding space to store redundant information.
  • "processing" of the DNA is much faster and easier than normal. The soldier's cell are able to reproduce way more quickly, because they need less synthesis and less decode/reencode.

Furthermore, the whole DNA machinery might have been reengineered for durability. For example, instead of moving one triplet at a time, the DNA decoding could proceed with three triplets at a time, using the same radiation-resistant protocol used by NASA computers ("what I tell you three times is true"). This also allows very fast correction of most mutations. The DNA termination sequences could also store a biological "checksum", so that a mutation would slow down the affected cell and, in the long run, kill it.

A similar protection protocol must be established in the brain, to prevent radiation ionization from wreaking havoc there; otherwise, the soldier might risk going into convulsions or losing coordination when hit by ionizing radiation.

With these modifications, our soldiers would be extremely resistant to radiation damage (a single DNA unit would only be damaged if at least two out of three bases were hit), converted into a sort of fatigue; strongly affected cells would die and be consumed by neighboring cells, which would then reproduce and replace their fallen comrades. The only macroscopic effects would be general malaise, increased appetite, tiredness and low-level pain - nothing that really affects combat capabilities in the short run. The same fast-processing capability also gives it quick-healing, which is desirable all in itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting. Question though, how feasible is multiple DNA strings for specialized cells like those found in a human body? I would imagine that having multiple DNA sets is going to take a lot of space, which isn't that much of a problem for a microorganism but a complicated large creature...? $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 6 '18 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan good point; I've expanded the answer. $\endgroup$ – LSerni May 6 '18 at 15:39
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Nothing

I would do nothing. Radiation won’t kill your soldier before some time. Your soldier was designed to fight and complete its missions very efficiently, not to live for many years until he dies in his bed surrounded by all his grand-grandchildren.

Radiations are not going to stop him during its mission, but the added weight/complexity that you add to protect your soldier from radiations might. So don’t do anything to protect the soldier from this threat. Soldier, even for a super-soldier, is a very dangerous job, so he’ll be lucky if he lives old enough to get cancer.

Actually, you might do little things that are cheap and might help mitigate radiations. For instance, as stated by @VBartilucci, give him iodide pills. Or if you know that the area is radioactive, give him a lead apron for this specific mission.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. A society with expensive supersoldiers with radiation protection will likely be overwhelmed by a society with cheap but short-lived supersoldiers. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith May 4 '18 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith Yeah, also I think that between two equivalent soldiers, with the only difference of one having protection against radiation, the one without will win a fight. This is because the protection against radiation will likely be heavy, reduce ease of movement, consume energy, and add complexity to the whole combat system that the soldier has to manage. So everything that is not strictly necessary to complete a mission should be avoided. $\endgroup$ – Legisey May 4 '18 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. Even if the radiation-protection is something biological and passive (like widespread heavy melanism throughout their organs) it still takes resources to produce that could otherwise be used for more useful features, both in time to develop these countermeasures and in producing the countermeasures themselves. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith May 4 '18 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ For a ground-based army of grunts that is in a conflict I would agree. But even then you would have plenty of specializations where you want your soldiers to live as long as possible. Spec ops, the crew of certain high-cost vehicles you wont sacrifice that easily or space crew of larger space ships. Long-lived soldiers would have a higher homeostasis cost but reduce the training and growth costs of rebuilding and replacing old soldiers. With cancers and genetic mutations at the forefront of aging and death... Theres plenty reasons to have large parts of your army protected. Not all of them. $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 15:40
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Queen Horcrux

A Horcrux is an object in which a Dark wizard or witch has hidden a fragment of his or her soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Horcrux

The problem with radiation is that it beats up the DNA. Without your blueprint you cannot fix your cell - or worse the blueprint is garbled such that following it leads to a cancer. It is a problem. Our own fix: our epithelial cells, which are prone to cancer because of the work they do and need for replication have a short and finite lifespan. Much like the Replicants in Blade Runner. These cells are born to die after their work is done. But they can still turn into cancer because the nucleus and DNA blueprint is still on board and can be mutated. Some of our own cells permanently avoid this problem by jettisoning the nucleus and with it the DNA - terminally differentiated skin cells and red blood cells being two.

In your soldiers, all the cells do this. No cells keep DNA on board. Like Voldemort who stored his soul off site to protect himself, the DNA for these creatures is stored off site.

That means regeneration must happen periodically in bursts once the creature can access its DNA - not continual regeneration as humans do. Your soldiers must return to a base or a nest or a hive where their DNA is kept or they will degenerate, aging rapidly and losing function. Once in the nest, stem cells with the DNA make new cells for them which flood into their bodies and find their way to the various organs, renewing the aging worker cells.

This would be easier to do if all these creatures were clones (like worker bees) and could all use the same DNA repository. Maybe the DNA is harbored within some sort of weird queen organism, whose cell-rich milk the workers come back to suckle.


I have been excitedly thinking about this high SF concept. Another aspect to this is reprogrammability. If the queen knows she is sending her workers to a high gravity high H2SO4 world she can load them with cells ready to cope with that environment. Hot world with known pathogens - ok, cells for that. The supersoldiers could be reprogrammable from the cellular level. Everything except the neurons, which I think are cancer proof (I do not want anyone commenting about glioblastoma until they read what the cells of origin are!).

I picture the supersoldiers in their new deployment, each rapidly sloughing / shedding / recycling / spitting out the cellular remnants of their previous deployments as those old cells fold under the new environmental stresses and the new ones take their place.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this idea is that DNA is mostly responsible for keepign the cell alive. For example, without DNA in your muscle you can't produce the ATP you need to move. Perhaps an alternative is to have a "junk" DNA that simply keeps the cell going, and when it's time for division a checked and ready DNA string is introduced from a source somewhere else in the body. This does mean you have to have a system to get the DNA through the body and into the cell and then into the nucleus. Not an easy task. Viruses only launch RNA strings to commandeer the cell's production. $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ /have a "junk" DNA that simply keeps the cell going/ - good idea, and one that all life does. RNA constitutes those limited use messages. The new cells would be loaded with RNA but no DNA. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 4 '18 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid that loading it up with just RNA wouldn't work. To prevent a cell from murdering itself through imbalances or using up all it's energy, RNA is designed to stop working at some point (although I can't find a reference to RNA breakdown atm). Thats why I thought "junk" DNA would be a good idea. Just the DNA strings required to keep the cell going, but once it's time for division a checked and ready string of DNA is brought in, which will then be cut down so only the junk DNA is remaining and the cell won't divide itself in case of DNA damage. $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 6 '18 at 14:57
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Potassium iodide is used as an anti-radiation treatment - a device to feed or provide a steady dose to the soldier seems a pretty basic start. There's side-effects of its use, but depending on how much hand-waving you want to do, they could be written off as cured.

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  • $\begingroup$ Potassium Iodide is used to saturate the Thyroid gland. The Thyroid Gland happily sucks up any iodine it comes into contact with and Iodine can easily be irradiated. This is mainly problematic for children who need the thyroid for lots of growth processes and having irradiated Iodine accumulated in the Thyroid will eventually cause defects. Potassium Iodide is used so the Thyroid sucks itself full with non-irradiated Iodine, preventing it from accumulating the irradiated version. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potassium_iodide#Nuclear_accidents $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 4 '18 at 7:21

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