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Recently, I read a book called "Swallowed Star". In the story, a virus changes human DNA enough for humans to have unbelievable superpowers and skills. Some even obtain the ability to have their own gravitational pull and not breathe in space.

I want to know if it is actually possible for genes to be able to cause such things, or is it just impossible theoretically speaking if there isn't enough matter?

PS. Sorry if this sounds like a stupid question. I don't have the knowledge of space and viruses to answer this myself. Please forgive me.

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    $\begingroup$ "In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king" turned out to be incorrect, but you can run with the underlying idea. A virus that affects 99% of the population and causes eyesight and hearing damage, muscle wasting, bone density loss and clotting deficiencies will certainly make those who are immune seem like superhumans by comparison... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime You're describing a zombie movie. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ A good rule-of-thumb is you cannot modify someones genes to give them powers that are not already present somewhere in the animal kingdom. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime, I appreciate the description of the zombie movie, but . . . my book isn't a movie. It's an animation series, though. Pretty interesting ;D $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 0:26

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There is no conceivable way for a change in a human's genes to enable them to alter the laws of physics (i.e. give them their own gravitational pull).

Not needing to breathe for extended periods could be made possible with some form of extremely efficient anaerobic respiration, which provides a body with energy without requiring oxygen. Currently, there are no genes in humans which code for a choice between anaerobic or aerobic respiration; whether an organism has metabolic pathways for breathing with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anerobic) is much more complicated than an on/off switch.

However, modern gene editing technology can splice foreign DNA segments into preexisting DNA strands, and has produced things such as goats whose milk contains useful spider silk or strawberries with flounder antifreeze genes for cold resistance. Sometimes, it's done via artificially-altered viruses. It is therefore clearly possible for a virus to splice foreign DNA into an organism's genetic code in a manner causes physical changes (as opposed to simply being non-coding ["junk"] DNA which doesn't appear to do anything).

Essentially: there's absolutely no way people with their own gravitational pull are possible with anything that follows humanity's current understanding of the basic physical laws of the universe, but, conversely, I'd say it's quite likely that, even in real life, gene-altering technology will eventually enable altered people to breathe for long periods (if not indefinitely) without oxygen, and our gene-altering technology today already uses viruses on a regular basis. Big no on the gravity, medium yes on the lack of a need to breathe.

Dealing with the dangers posed to the human body by the hard vacuum, cosmic rays, and extreme temperature differences found in space, on the other hand, might be somewhat more difficult. And don't forget that even a human whose bodily processes run off of super-efficient anaerobic respiration will need to breathe oxygen eventually...

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Viruses and pathogens can affect everything that is based on genetic expression or biochemistry: there are known examples of pathogens changing the behavior of their hosts, for example, not forgetting that any pathogen tries to turn its host into a replicator of themselves.

What a virus cannot do is changing the laws of physics.

Some even obtain the ability to have their own gravitational pull and not breathe in space

Changing the gravitational pull would require at least one of the three:

  1. changing the gravitational constant G
  2. changing the mass of the infected
  3. changing the distance between the infected and the pulled object

1 is impossible based on what we know today about physics.

2 is trivial, a virus can induce mass weight or mass loss, but the effect is hardly appreciable, unless you want to step in the realm of mama jokes.

3 is also trivial and again hardly appreciable. We get closer or farther to many objects in our daily life, without even realizing that our gravitational pull on them is changing, because it's such a low pull that it can be taken as 0

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I would argue that a sufficiently complex (that is, likely not natural) retro-virus could make some changes like super-strong, super-fast, likely significantly improved senses of sight and hearing. Even there it might only express (either fully or even partially) in children rather than already-grown individuals. And to effect children the retro-virus would need to infect gamete-producing tissues.

To do away with the need to breathe you would need to integrate an entirely different metabolic pathway, I suppose technically feasible, somehow, but seems unlikely. Even more unlikely for that alternative to be as energetically-favorable as using free oxygen from an atmosphere (that is, just as jet engines have better performance than rockets because they don't have to carry their oxidizer along with them). However, none of that seems as unlikely as modifying gravity.

None of those things are 'magical'. Basically imagine the most optimized organism you can think of along any given axis and it could probably be accomplished.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you ^^. I forgot to mention that they could control elements and have telekinesis skills. Sorry about the confusion with the 'magic' part. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Silvermidnight Those two things are also impossible if one simply uses biology. Honestly, if you want people to be capable of these things, have them live in a The Matrix-style simulated universe in which the laws of physics don't apply. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 0:54
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In real life many people have genes for diseases they will never have. The unlucky ones are the people who get cancer, for example, after suffering a severe infection. The Epstein-Barr virus "turns on" the genes responsible for a certain kind of blood cancer. This is called epi-genetics. It's still a developing field.

In your story, gaining superpowers by way of a virus infection could be explained by an epi-genetic change kicking in, though your human would have to already have the genes necessary to express that power. That can be explained by their ancestors also having had superpowers which would carry through the generations just like hair colour, height, handedness, and a million other characteristics.

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    $\begingroup$ Genes that code for certain phenotypes can be spliced into an organism with CRISPR gene editing (which sometimes uses altered viruses to accomplish this), so it's not necessarily true that the humans would already need the genes necessary to express these powers. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ @KEY_ABRADE. What other ways are possible, if not genes? I'm really interested :) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Silvermidnight Cybernetic enhancement could also allow such things (although, in real life, we're nowhere close to that level of technology); for instance, giving someone ports in their body that can connect to oxygen tanks and spacesuits would enable them to breathe for long periods in space. Humanity already has spacesuits; it's just that, in this case, the spacesuit's part of their body. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ @KEY_ABRADE that would be an interesting world, for sure :) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 2:24

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