Tag Archives: bioengineering

Captain America’s Super Soldier Serum

Last week I got a request by email for a post about superheroes who don’t necessarily have superpowers per se, but instead have been enhanced to operate at a maximum of human capacity and efficiency, such as Captain America.  Even if I hadn’t gotten a specific request by email, I probably would have done my next post on Captain America anyway, in honor of the Avengers opening weekend (if you haven’t seen it yet go, go, go right now, it’s got a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason).  But I also wanted to remind all my readers that any specific requests, by email or comment, are always welcome and I would love to hear feedback about what you would like to read about next.

Steve Rogers was a scrawny kid in the 1940s who failed to meet the physical requirements to join the U.S. army.  He was invited to volunteer as the first test subject for Operation: Rebirth, a project intended to enhance US soldiers to the height of physical perfection.  After injections and ingestion of the “Super Soldier Serum,” Rogers was exposed to a controlled burst of “Vita-Rays” that activated and stabilized the chemicals in his system. The process successfully altered his physiology from its frail state to the maximum of human efficiency, including greatly enhanced musculature and reflexes.  As Captain America, Rogers gained near superhuman agility, strength, speed, endurance, and a reaction time superior to any Olympic athlete who ever competed.  Additionally, his body eliminates the excessive build-up of fatigue-producing poisons in his muscles, granting him phenomenal endurance.

Photo credit Alex Wild @ alexanderwild.com

Recently an international team of scientists led by Dr. Ehab Abouheif of McGill University in Montreal have discovered a simple hormone treatment similar to this fictional super soldier serum that turns ants into giant “supersoldiers”.  All ant colonies are made up of insects of different “castes”, including soldiers and workers.  With simple hormone injections at critical points during the ant larvae’s development, this team was able to “trick” developing ant larvae to turn into a rare and unusual supersoldier caste.

All ant species are made up of castes, or groups of ants exclusively designed for specific tasks. Typically, an ant colony is made up of the queen, worker ants and drones, but a few ant species have evolved additional, specialized castes that help to meet the peculiar needs of that species. For example, among the more than 1,000 ant species known to encompass the genus Pheidole, only eight contain castes of giant-headed “supersoldiers” that use their oversized heads to protect the colony from invaders.

Since the species he was observing at the time wasn’t known to include a supersoldier caste, Abouheif became curious about where the giant-headed specimens had come from. Closer study revealed that they were actually mutants — ants that had had their development altered after hormonal abnormalities occurred during their larval stage.  Abouheif realized this likely meant that supersoldier traits were inherent — just unexpressed — in the ant species. He went on to use the hormonal treatment to successfully generate a supersoldier caste in at least two “ordinary” ant species that do not naturally express it.
Additionally, last year, geneticists working at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Switzerland, have discovered a gene treatment that can turn regular mice into “mighty mice” capable of running at speeds twice as fast as normal, and for 20 minutes longer than normal mice.  The therapy works by knocking out the gene that makes a protein called nuclear receptor corepressor 1, or NCoR1, which is present in the muscles of mice. NCoR1 essentially acts as an off switch, or regulator, for the mitochondria in cells. By knocking the gene out, the mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of a cell, continue to work at full speed without stopping.  The result is a superpowered mouse.  Better yet, the enhancements don’t appear to come at a cost.  Treated mice gained muscle mass but they didn’t require any extra food to keep them going.
Hopefully, research like these studies and others can be developed further in the future to help unlock the true maximum potential of the human race.
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Deadpool’s Healing Factor

The Merc With A MouthFormerly a mercenary for hire, Wade Wilson, a.k.a. Deadpool, entered the Weapon X program in a last ditch effort to treat his aggressively malignant cancer.  Implanted with the genetic healing factor of another Weapon X agent, the mutant Wolverine, Deadpool gained his ability to regenerate any destroyed tissues or organs at a super-human rate; however, the procedure was not without side effects.  His new healing factor supercharged the growth rate of his cancerous tumors, causing them to quickly spread across his entire body and resulting in massive amounts of scar tissue.  His brain cells are similarly affected, with dying brain cells being rejuvenated at a super accelerated rate, which allows him to recover from any and all head wounds, and renders him nearly invulnerable to psychic and telepathic powers, as the altered or damaged brain cells quickly regenerate to their original state.  It is also the cause of his psychosis and mental instability.

Hopefully, if we are ever able to replicate this incredible power in real life, it will be without the unfortunate and occasionally debilitating side-effects.  Last year, studies performed on growth-factor-containing nanoparticles found they were able to accelerate the healing of chronic wounds.  Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new delivery system for such growth-factors improved the healing of deep skin wounds in diabetic mice. “It is quite amazing how just one dose of the fusion protein was enough to induce significant tissue regeneration in two weeks” says the paper’s lead author Piyush Koria, PhD at the University of South Florida.  The team developed a fusion protein from recombinant KGF and elastin-like-peptides, which are major constituents of skin and other connective tissues. Experiments showed that the fusion protein retained the wound-healing properties of both elastin and KGF and that it rapidly and efficiently self-assembled into nanoparticles in response to a simple increase in temperature. When applied to deep skin wounds in genetically diabetic mice, the nanoparticles accelerated healing by stimulating the formation of both surface epithelial tissue and thick fibrous connective tissue.

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Cable’s Technopathy

you have no idea how difficult it is to find a picture of this dude that isn't frighteningAs a sort of follow up to my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to do this next post on Cyclops’ son, Cable a.k.a. Nathan (Charles Christopher Dayspring Askani’son) Summers.  Much like his full name, Cable’s history is somewhat ridiculous in its length and complexity.  The offspring of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor (a clone of Jean Grey), as an infant Cable, a powerful mutant telepath and telekinetic, was sent to a war-torn future to be treated for an infection from the Techno-Organic Virus by the immortal mutant Apocalypse.  After being raised as the Askani’son, the one destined to kill Apocalypse, Nathan began to travel through time, eventually returning to what we know as the present.  After more lengthy and complex shenanigans, Cable loses his telekinetic powers and replaces them by linking with the Dominus Objective, a secondary hard drive that acts like a virus that acts like a server.  He is essentially able to replace his telepathy by connecting his brain to the entirety of the  internet.

Personally, if I could have any superpower, I just might choose this one.  The idea of being connected into the near infinity of the technological sphere at all times is certainly appealing.  Luckily for me, researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have created a brain-computer interface system that successfully allowed Adam Wilson,  one of their biomedical engineering doctoral students to post a status update to Twitter just by thinking about it.  His message, “using EEG to send tweet,”  was conveyed through an interface consisting of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. “The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually,” says Williams. “And what your brain does is, if you’re looking at the ‘R’ on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the ‘R’ flashes, your brain says, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Something’s different about what I was just paying attention to.’ And you see a momentary change in brain activity.”  The technology is intended to be the basis for a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally, i.e. people who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.  But hopefully someday the system could also be applied on a greater scale to access the entire internet from the comfort of your own mind.

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Cyclops’ Biological Lasers

Scott SummersThe very first recruited X-men team member, Cyclops, a.k.a. Scott Summers, is the archetypal hero of comics.  The foil to Wolverine’s anti-hero, Cyclops had been the reluctant leader of the X-men, but has since become an effective commander for the team.  Both a blessing and a curse, his mutant powers give him the power to emit red beams of energy from his eyes described as an “optic blast.”   The beams do not give off heat and instead deliver concussive force without recoil.  His optic lasers are incredibly powerful and can even rupture steel plates and destroy rock.

It seems like it would be a fairly straightforward process to create a completely mechanical system to mimic Cyclops’ optic blasts, but I think a biological system would be more ideal.  Not only is it closer to comic book canon, an inherent biological system would have the added benefits of not relying on an external power source.  Luckily, physicists Malte Gather and Seok-Hyun Yun of Harvard Medical School in Boston have recently taken the first steps in the development of such a system.

 Reporting their findings in Nature Photonics in the article Single-cell biological lasers, Gather and Yun discuss how they were able to create the first “living laser” using living biological material: a single kidney human cell and some jellyfish protein.  There are two central components to building any type of laser: first, a lasing material that amplifies light from an external source, or a ‘gain medium’, and second, an arrangement of mirrors, or an ‘optical cavity’, which concentrates and aligns the light waves into a tight beam. Until now, the gain medium has only been made from non-biological substances such as doped crystals, semiconductors or gases, but in this case the researchers used enhanced green fluorescent protein (GFP) — the substance that makes jellyfish bioluminescent, which is used extensively in cell biology to label cells.

The team engineered human embryonic kidney cells to produce GFP, then placed a single cell between two mirrors to make an optical cavity just 20 micrometres across. When they fed the cell pulses of blue light, it emitted a directional laser beam visible with the naked eye — and the cell wasn’t harmed.  The width of the laser beam is “tiny” and “fairly weak” in its brightness compared to traditional lasers, says Yun, but “an order of magnitude” brighter than natural jellyfish fluorescence, with a “beautiful green” colour.

personally, i'm rooting for wolverine, but i've never liked cyclops very much

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Super-speed With and Without Legs

Super-speed is undoubtedly one of the most popular superpowers in comics, shared across generations of families in both Marvel and DC universes.  Most famously, the Flash family (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen, and more) in DC Comics and Quicksilver and Speed in Marvel are only a few of a long list of characters with the power to travel great distances in the blink of an eye.  It’s pretty easy to understand why this is such a prominent power: who wouldn’t want the ability get things done at the speed of thought and leave plenty of time for some R&R?

So how can you get the speed of Usain Bolt and the endurance of Lance Armstrong without the years of intense physical training?  One possible solution could be mechanical legs: Oscar Pistorius of South Africa calls himself the fastest man on no legs. Pistorius, who has a double amputation of both legs, is the world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 metres events in the Paralympics and runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs by Ossur.

In 2007, Pistorius took part in his first international competitions for able-bodied athletes. However, his artificial lower legs, while enabling him to compete, have generated claims that he has an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. The same year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules to ban the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. The federation claimed that the amendment was not specifically aimed at Pistorius. After monitoring his track performances and carrying out tests, scientists took the view that Pistorius enjoyed considerable advantages over athletes without prosthetic limbs. On the strength of these findings, on 14 January 2008 the IAAF ruled him ineligible for competitions conducted under its rules, including the 2008 Summer Olympics.  Obviously, the artificial legs used by Pistorius won’t work for those of us born with both our fibulas, but the physics knowledge and technology at work in the Cheetah Flex-Foot limbs could easily be applied to the enhancement of natural limbs.

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Maybe Heroism Isn’t Your Style

I certainly don’t want to accidentally exclude anyone from enjoying this blog, so for my next post I thought I would focus on the opposite end of the comic book character spectrum from superheroes: the super villain.  Maybe you don’t want to be the hero, maybe you’ve always felt like fighting against society for your own personal gains (I’m not here to judge, just to educate).  So I thought for my first villain post, I would start small.  And by small, I actually mean very, very large.

Fred Dukes, or The Blob, is a mutant whose physiology allowed him to create a mono-directional gravity field extending five feet from his center of balance, rendering himself virtually immovable as long as he was in contact with the ground. His body formerly had superhuman strength and durability; the fat tissues could absorb the impact of bullets, cannonballs, and even missiles.

The first step towards getting powers like these for yourself is to gain the necessary body mass.  I can’t guarantee that the ability to produce your own gravity field or to have bullets just bounce off of you will necessarily come after, but you have to take that first step off a ledge in order to get anywhere at all.  And there’s a smarter way to go about this than just eating as much as you physically can.

Recently, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have discovered that variations in the CD36 gene can alter a human’s sensitivity to the taste of fat in foods. Prior investigation of the CD36 gene in rodent models showed that rats and mice engineered without the CD36 gene no longer had a preference for fatty foods and were not able to digest fat properly. As noted in their article for the Journal of Lipid Research, not only can people who produce more CD36 protein more easily detect fat, it is estimated that 20% of people have a variant of the CD36 gene associated with making less CD36 protein.  It was found that participants with genotypes conducive of higher CD36 production were better able to detect the solution containing fat than participants with genotypes less conducive of CD36 production.  Thus, through some epigenetic altering, it could be possible to turn on the CD36 gene in your own body and get that small advantage on gaining the necessary weight to be able to induce your own personal gravitational field.

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Breathe Underwater Like Aquaman

Switching it up from my previous post, let’s move from the most popular hero in Marvel comics to arguably one of the biggest jokes in DC publishing: Aquaman.  In theory, I think Aquaman’s powers have a lot of potential: the telepathic ability to communicate with marine life (which at times can include any creature that lives on the sea, like seabirds, or sometimes even just any being evolved from marine life), in addition to numerous adaptations that allow him to survive in the greatest depths of the ocean.  Especially in the DCNU, DC is trying its hardest to present Aquaman in his best possible light:

Aquaman vs. Green Lantern

But personally, I have a hard time reconciling this new version of Aquaman with things more like this:

Regardless of which version of Aquaman you prefer, the ability to breathe underwater and superhuman durability high enough to remain unaffected by the immense pressure and the cold temperature of the ocean depths would actually be particularly useful in real life.  Science has diverged into two distinct directions both researching ways to allow man to effectively breathe underwater.

First is the strictly mechanical route: Like-A-Fish Technologies has developed an artificial gills process that effectively extracts oxygen from the surrounding water.  Their battery powered system utilizes a high-speed centrifuge to lower the pressure of seawater in a small sealed chamber.  This allows the dissolved air to escape back into a gaseous state to create a replenishing supply of breathable oxygen.  Since every liter of water consists of about 1.5% of dissolved air, the gills must circulate about 200 liters of water per minute to accommodate the oxygen requirements of an average person. Instead of being restricted to the amount of air that can be carried in a tank, a diver’s air supply would then depend only on the battery power available.  However, this technology is still in the prototype stages, and extensive research and development testing is required before it could be widely available.

However, artificial gills are not the only option for research into the realm of breathing underwater. Scientists have discovered a way for humans to potentially breathe underwater by merging our DNA with that of algae. A species of salamanders have been discovered that bond their eggs with oxygen-producing algae so closely that the two are now inseparable.  Scientists hope through further study of this mechanism, that the same process could be one day applied to humans as well.  Researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, discovered that human DNA is rife with hundreds of viruses we have absorbed over the course of history.  They applied this same theory to salamanders: algae often got stuck in their embryos and now some salamanders are literally part algae.  The algae does not leave as the salamander grows, meaning that by the time they are fully formed adults, salamanders are part plant.

This discovery is the first documented case of such complete symbiosis between a plant and a vertebrate. Bioengineers could one day potentially use algae as a source of oxygen for other organisms that it pairs with – including humans.  Such a leap would require extensive testing but given that like salamanders, we are also vertebrates, it is theoretically possible.

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