I will keep this short:

I am writing a story about a Society with lots of Superheroes, and I want them to discover that they have powers after inhaling some sort of chemical. I want this to be pretty scientific based, not just saying magic or anything. They don't have powers before, they inhale it, they have powers shortly after. What could possibly do that? Based on what I know, I was thinking an Aerosol Can of stuff that uses CRISPR to replace the subject's DNA with upgrades.

With the DNA of the powers, I understand that having powers like fire doesn't make sense with normal DNA, so there is leniency there, or "magic". Assume that each person has a set power they could get, and they CRISPR changes the DNA to "unlock it". I just want what it take for the CRISPR Method to be used in Aerosol form.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Jwrecker, and welcome to Worldbuilding! This question is currently a bit broad for our site because superhero powers are incredibly varied. If you're looking for biological reasons for superpowers, it would help us a lot to know what kind of powers you're looking for. Superstrength might be plausible, but flight or invisibility is probably not. I've voted to place your question on hold until you get a chance to edit it and provide some more details. You may also find our Sandbox helpful! $\endgroup$
    – Dubukay
    Jul 23, 2019 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to downvoters: the OP cannot fix the question if they are not made aware of the problems. Please consider leaving a comment noting why you feel like the question deserves a downvote, especially for our new user! $\endgroup$
    – Dubukay
    Jul 23, 2019 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Please provide the tag of "magic" if you want magical answers or please remove the mention of magic from your question. $\endgroup$
    – kleer001
    Jul 23, 2019 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ In aerosol form it could (probably would) interact with all sorts of DNA based things that are in air, on skin, on surfaces, on clothes, and indeed the myriad of foreign organisms in the human body. You'd be creating a lot of super diseases (not to mention just lots of diseases that can't be cure), as well as making random changes to human DNA that you can't predict, so lots of deformed, disabled and extremely ill people. $\endgroup$ Jul 23, 2019 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Try reading the question carefully. The OP is asking if something like CRISPR can be in aerosol form. Not what is a biological mechanism for super-powers. The question isn't too broad. Vote to keep it open. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jul 24, 2019 at 5:24

5 Answers 5


The easiest way to do this is to not use CRISPR directly, but to use it to engineer some sort of pathogen that can deliver your DNA changes.

CRISPR originally comes from bacteria and is used by them to protect against viruses and to edit their own genome, so this becomes a perfect vector for your CRISPR plague.

Bioweapons programs of the past have shown that it is quite possible to aerosolize pathogens, but is also quite difficult. The thing to do here would be to force your engineered bacteria to be some kind of spore, and a sturdy one at that.

I'm actually using this same plot device in a story of my own:

  • The main villain uses CRISPR-X to engineer an artificial human chromosome (in this case an X chromosome).
  • The artificial chromosome is packed into an infectious yeast, the spores of which are distributed via aerosol.
  • People unknowingly breathe in the yeast and it becomes a part of their normal commensal flora, growing as inconspicuously as possible to avoid invoking an immune response.
  • The yeast lies dormant until receiving some kind of chemical signal, at which point it produces virions which infect the host.
  • The virions deliver the artificial chromosome.
  • The artificial chromosome contains all of the desired changes to invoke in the host, and randomly selects one of them. This leads to "classes" of mutations in those infected.

This of course leads to some issues that are mostly glossed over:

  • Creating an artificial X-chromosome and wrapping it with histones is incredibly difficult. The human X chromosome is several million base pairs, and in my particular story the artificial one is much larger. However, more than its size is the histone problem. Even today we don't really know how to take a long strand of DNA and package it into a viable chromosome with histones and all.
  • Because this is actually almost identical to how CRISPR gene delivery works today, it has the same problems: Namely that the added gene (or plasmid) gets weeded out in a few generations because organisms are very efficient and tend to get rid of foreign DNA that is of no benefit to them. In the real world, this is overcome by attaching the gene to something desirable, such as an antibiotic resistance gene in E. coli and yeast. In the real world, you take the glowing gene, attach it to a gene that introduces antibiotic resistance, and then force your target organism to grow on a growth plate with that antibiotic. This is how you do the experiment with glowing yeast. The glowing gene is attached to an antibiotic gene and packaged in a plasmid. The yeast either takes in the gene and becomes resistant to your toxin (with glowing as a side effect), or it dies. The benefit of the antibiotic resistance also forces the yeast to keep the plasmid containing your gene over multiple generations.
  • There is a chance of undesirable mutations being introduced. The more generations your yeast spawns, the more likely your artificial chromosome is to be degraded through natural mutations during mitosis/meiosis. However, with enough engineering and cleverness, even this could be overcome by including a lot of genes whose sole purpose is to maintain the effectiveness of the artificial chromosome.
  • If you're going the chromosome approach (as opposed to say a plasmid or viral RNA/DNA approach), you're going to have to properly handle methylation. In human females, one of the X-chromosomes is silenced (i.e. turned off) to prevent extra gene products, and Down's Syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome 21. Without silencing one of the extra chromosomes, you're likely to have some big problems.
  • In your case, there is a question of "what superpower" the DNA can introduce. In my particular story, all possible mutations are contained in a single artificial chromosome and selected randomly. You could do this, or you could engineer different versions of your yeast/virus delivery mechanism that deliver different DNA depending on what the person is susceptible to (a kind of "genetic key"). This second approach has the added benefit of slowing down the development of an immunity to your delivery vector, but both approaches require a lot of extra engineering (though it might be easier to engineer several small chromosomes than one very large one).

These problems are not insurmountable, but given our current understanding of biochemistry, we're probably at a minimum of 20 years away and maximum of 100 years away from being able to solve them, so you may want to set your story in the near (but not Star-Trek far away) future...


It's not something we can do now, but I don't think this is entirely out of the question. The process of delivering genetic material to a cell is called transfection, and the Wikipedia page alone describes over a dozen ways to do it, some of which require relatively little intervention after exposure.

One thing to note about CRISPR is that it introduces specific alterations to a DNA sequence at a specific locus, so one batch of CRI-SPRay will introduce the same variation in everyone exposed to it. Maybe that somehow results in different superpowers in different people, but it might be more believable to have different batches with different DNA alterations that result in different powers. It's not like the old chestnut of being exposed to radiation, which introduces random variability that could result in pretty much anything.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that CRISPR theoretically induces specific alterations at a specific locus, but in practice there are a lot of off-target effects that are very hard to quantify / discover by conventional means. Source: I CRISP things $\endgroup$ Jul 23, 2019 at 20:33

Any non-toxic gas that can enter bloodstream via lungs and is unlikely to be encountered by accident.

If the power is already set, it is manifested in reasonable time after the exposure and it is scientific then the genetic modification has happened years ago. Probably before birth, but childhood "treatment" would probably work.

But since having children or mentally unstable people manifest powers, especially unstable in development powers, would be a major safety hazard the engineering was done with a safety that blocks the powers until the correct chemical trigger is supplied. The chemical disables the safety and super power, already fully developed, comes online. Still will take time to learn to use it.

A two stage trigger where you first enable a "training wheel" version of the power to practice with and then once some skill and control has been acquired the full power is enabled separately. It would be reasonable to make full power enable temporary so that powers can only be used with some authorization. In which case the actual chemical used as a trigger would be classified and might vary from person to person.


A lot

CRISPR is an acronym for 'Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats'. It was named before they knew what it did, and how it was useful. It use the CRISPR protein (and the Cas9 complex) to edit DNA. The original purpose of CRISPR is a bacteria self-defense system (specifically, a recognition system). It scans DNA, identifies a pattern from it's 'memory' (a preset template) and cut said DNA out. New DNA is then induced (somewhat successfully) into the cell by other means. The reason everyone's so happy about it is because of how precise it cuts.

The good news is that it's derived from streptococcus pyogenes, which is aerotolerant, so you can infect people with it by spraying it at them. (Note: This is a crime.) The bad news is everything else. The bacteria itself won't do anything because CRISPR acts on it, not your body, you need to get the actual CRISPR inside the target cells, which won't happen without some mechanism to infiltrate the cells. Both the lungs and the skin (and all orifices) come with innate protection that can't be bypassed with something that only is dangerous to a specific fragment of DNA. So you need a delivery system which bypasses the human defenses, but somehow release the the CRISPR into cells, which is an extremely specialized method. (Typically, that's what hypodermic needles are for.) Then you need it to somehow spread to every cell, introduce new DNA to replace the DNA CRIPSR cut out and have a delivery system for that as well and spread that throughout the body. Oh, and get the accepted rate of new DNA to something decent, like 90%, which isn't currently possible. Finally, you need some kind of agent to get that gene expressed. Having a gene is useless unless it's expressed and just implanting it won't guarantee it's expression.


The gas is actually a cloud of spores, that in suitable conditions infect human cells and establish specialized connections with the neurons in the brain.

The end result is that the infected human gets the subconscious instructions to control a network of organelles not unlike mitochondria. Depending on the vagaries of metabolism and brain development, the network will be more or less developed and more or less easily used in certain ways and not in others.

These organelles contain a "Maxwell effect" membrane that allows the network to both control cellular metabolism and even influence probability at the nuclear level in a limited radius; this, in turn, with the appropriate programming, can be used to emulate most superpowers and apparently violate the laws of physics.

The origin and ultimate purpose of the clearly artificial organelles (some call them midichlorians) is not known. Some conspiracy fans believe that they're part of a complicated scheme to either exterminate humans or test them to see whether they're "mature" - in practice they've been given a gun, and it's up to them whether to use it to hunt food, self defense, or to shoot each other in the foot.

But after a good inhalation of spores and some days' worth of mild hallucinations, most people will be able to fly, lift tons of weight, regenerate wounds, shapeshift, etc. - some better than others, some not at all.


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