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Toxic Spiders and Experiments Gone Wrong:

Let's Talk About Comic Book Mutations


Numerous superheroes get their powers after something mutates their cells.
Perhaps it's a gamma ray, and results in a morphological change every time the hero is stressed; or maybe an irradiated spider, that gives the hero enhanced speed and agility.
Let's talk about why that shouldn't work.


In real life, we observe two types of mutations:

Germline / Germinal / Heritable These are passed on from parents to offspring. They occur when a gamete (sperm or egg) mutates, and result in the mutation being spread through the entire body of the offspring.

Somatic These are not passed on from parents to offspring. They occur when environmental factors (radiation, DNA copying errors) are present, and only effect areas of tissue created when the mutated cell replicates.


The problem with explaining the powers of superheroes with mutations, aside from the improbability of mutations that cause the powers described in comics, is that the mutations described in comics seem to be a combination of both germline and somatic mutations.

Comic books describe environmental factors, that, in real life, would cause somatic mutations. They would

  1. Only mutate clumps of cells nearby (think tumor instead of whole body)
  2. Only mutate the same types of cells (a toxic spider that bites the skin won't change the bones)
  3. Not be passed on to offspring

But yet these mutations effect the entire body, and can be passed on to offspring: they are also heritable.


Is there a way to justify a mutation from an environmental cause that affects all cells, and can be passed to offspring?

EDIT: To clarify, I am not asking if mutations can give you superpowers - of course they can't. I'm asking if the genes required to do so can end up in the places the comics say they are - and if so, how.

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  • $\begingroup$ How reality-check do you want this to be? In the real world, these sorts of mutations are so unbelievably unlikely to occur that we tend to just handwave away the tails of the distribution and say "it simply can't happen." To get remotely close to a "justification" for a superhero style mutation, we almost have to completely ditch the reality check, or go for some seriously unlikely events to make it happen. Is "divine intervention at Bruce Banner's birth which made him susceptible to this particular mutation" a valid part of an answer? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Dec 4 '16 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon For clarity I'm not asking "could Bruce mutate hulk's powers" but rather "how do you get the Hulk genes in all the places the comics say they are". And you are welcome to delve into speculation as long as it's somewhat realistic, or else say "no, it's completely impossible" which is still acceptable. I'd rather avoid divine intervention if that's possible. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 4 '16 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to remind the driveby downvoter that downvotes are for questions which are unhelpful, or which show a lack of research or effort; if the answer is simply "no" then answer "no" instead of downvoting. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 4 '16 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to remind the driveby downvoter that they have every right to downvote a question but that it would be much more helpful to leave a comment explaining what they think the author of the question should have done better. $\endgroup$ – Annonymus Dec 4 '16 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra You might want to consider changing the title, the current title indicates that you want to know if it would be possible for a hulk to form after irradiation by gamma rays. The answer is no, hulk does not respect the laws of physics. Your question, however, is how, assuming irradiation by gamma rays can create hulks, the mutation can spread through the body, which may have a different answer. $\endgroup$ – Annonymus Dec 4 '16 at 18:29
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The big issue with this sort of thing is that, somehow, all different parts of the superhero's body need to be affected at once, and with synergy. If half of the hero's muscle fibers are made stronger, and half are made weaker, they gained nothing. And then there's the whole issue of all the unlucky mutations that kill the cells outright (and there's far more of those than there are mutations for telepathy!). There's no way a simple radiation accident (or similar) could do what we want on its own. However, what if the seeds for this ability are millions of years old? Perhaps instead of having the radiation cause the mutation, maybe all it does is trigger it, and some complex internal system does the rest.

The current favored hypothesis for the evolution of species is called punctuated equilibrium. In this system, species spend most of their time in a sort of equilibrium where few changes occur. However, every now and then, they undergo a period of rapid change. This rapidity is used to explain the lack of transition species that we can find in the fossil record. Now the real scientific theory this occurs over hundreds of generations, but what if it actually occurred in just one?

What if our bodies ran in two modes, which I will label "user mode" and "kernel mode" because there's enough similarity between this idea and the way modern computers handle privileges. The key difference between the modes is that "user mode" is not allowed to alter the DNA itself, except through well understood channels such as mitosis and meosis.

Kernel mode would be invoked via a quorum. If enough cells signal that we need to unlock "the hidden potential" of the individual, they'd vote for it with hormones. If enough hormones are emitted, it's like the bat signal flashing over the sky, and the kernel mode capacities of our genome are woken up. They call one final vote (which is easier now, because they have an "elected official"), and if the vote is sufficient, kernel mode is activated.

In kernel mode, the DNA of the individual is open for reading and writing. This would be very powerful in radiation environments because it would act like a massive RAID of harddrives. Every bit of damage that gets caused has a few million replicas elsewhere in the body. This could counteract the otherwise certainly-fatal doses of radiation poisoning.

Of course, if you were going to have this sort of power hidden in your genome, you'd not only want to be able to counteract the radiation, you'd want to rise above it. You'd want to write new genes to rise above the environment. These genes, of course, could be passed on if you chose to rewrite your germline DNA. Your brain, on its own, would be insufficient to do this but what if it had help? What if, in some of the parts of our genome which appear to be unused likes a sort of grimoire of abilities the genome knows how to do. This sort of knowledge could then be used by the lower brain to try to identify mutations to fix their environment.

I say lower brain for three reasons. The first is that it's older... this sort of crazy pseudo-science would have to be born quite early if it were responsible for punctuated equilibrium. Perhaps the kernel mode of our bodies doesn't yet trust this new fangled cerebral cortex. The second reason is that, in the stories, people tend not to have full control over what mutations occur. If the cerebral cortex was involved, they would. Finally, I'd like to point out that most individuals going through this process are... well.. screaming in agony and in no condition to make life decisions.

I can't make any claim that this is how it works in real life, because I'd almost certainly be wrong. However, this seems like a reasonable way to bundle up just that much otherwise unbelievable power into a momentary dose of radiation. The radiation isn't doing the mutation, it's merely stressing the body enough to break a seal and unleash the next higher level of power the body has.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is interesting and it may be accepted but it only partially addresses the question - you describe when and why a "kernel" mode would occur but you do not address the "how" that the question asks - how do you physically spread the same DNA to every cell in kernel mode? $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 11 '16 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ It's just data. We have dozens of communication channels in the body. Hormones, for example, touch all cells. The only reason we don't do this now is because DNA is heavily protected. Clear that hurdle, and the rest is easy. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Dec 11 '16 at 5:16
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There isn't really a way for a genetic mutation in one cell to spread to another without outside help (which includes "the cell is made in some way different to the ones of normal, real-life humans).

The most likely answer will vary from comic to comic.

In hulk's case his whole body was irradiated, so we don't have any problem there (except explaining why the mutations were all consistent. That's not the question though).

In the case of spiderman and anybody else who gets bitten or otherwise infected we can attribute it to a virus. Such a virus would have no reason to evolve, but assuming it exists and is in the right place (i.e. in the spider's spit), it could infect a cell and modify its genes so that it creates more of the virus, besides making any changes required for the desired superpower. The virus would then spread through the whole body, modify the immune system to ignore it, change all genes as desired and eventually commit suicide. The cells could have a timer, after which they create another virus which modifies their dna to stop producing both viruses.

All of this is assuming genetic mutations could somehow cause all the superpowers we're talking about, but that seems to be the assumption in your question already.

EDIT: You could justify all mutations with a virus if you say that the first mutation (the single cell that was hit by the cosmic handwavium particle) was such as to cause the cell to produce the above-explained virus, but that would be even crazier than the superpowered mutation.

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  • $\begingroup$ You also have to ensure the virus doesn't cause the death of the host cells in its process of reproduction. $\endgroup$ – JAB Jan 20 '17 at 19:28

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