Could there be real-life X-men?

Test your superhuman knowledge!

Humans: super already?

From adults gaining super-strength in a crisis and babies in the womb fixing their mother’s damaged organs to razor-blade-dissolving stomach acid, check out the incredible X-men-style superpowers humans already have…

Genetic mutation alert - the singer Ke$ha was born with a tail!

Genetic mutation alert - the singer Ke$ha was born with a tail!

Genetic mutations - can our cells make mistakes?

All our genetic information is stored in our cells in the form of DNA. And our DNA controls the process of creating proteins, which are important building blocks for things like bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. But what happens if there’s a glitch in our system?

Accidental genetic mutations aren’t the only things that can give us superpowers - sometimes people change their bodies on purpose...

Accidental genetic mutations aren’t the only things that can give us superpowers - sometimes people change their bodies on purpose...

Chemical X-Men: can drugs create superhumans?

It’s not hard to see why someone might want to have Wolverine-like strength or incredible mental powers that would give Professor X a run for his money. But will performance-enhancing drugs do that for us - and are they worth the risk?


Female superhero graphic

Sometimes the human race can feel like an actual race - it’s all about who can be bigger, faster, stronger, smarter. So it’s no surprise that our competitive drive has led us to develop all kinds of chemicals that can alter our physical and mental states, giving our brains or bodies that extra edge.

And it’s not a new thing - the ancient Greeks could often be found brewing up wine potions, herbal medications and hallucinogens (drugs that can make you see things which aren’t there) in the search for better bodies and minds. The Romans also tried their hand at potions for power and even resorted to carefully-measured doses of the poison Strychnine to stop tiredness. And if we fast-forward to more modern times, performance-enhancing drugs (or PEDs) are popping up all over the place - from the military and the space travel industry to university campuses and competitive sport.

But what are these ‘wonder drugs’ and what do they do to and for our bodies? 

Pumped for action 

The main PEDs you’ll find people using are anabolic steroids, human growth hormones and stimulants or ‘smart’ drugs. 

Anabolic steroids imitate the effects of the male hormone testosterone - they help build muscle mass and increase your strength. Which is why they’re so popular with athletes and bodybuilders - you know, the kind with crazy bulging muscles and lots of fake tan that can pick up a car or drag a lorry along the road.

Human growth hormones are slightly different - they’re naturally present in our bodies already, as they help with muscle and cartilage growth and repair and can also help to regulate our weight so we don’t become obese. But some people inject extra doses of these hormones into themselves, hoping they’ll be able to get stronger without getting fatter.

Stimulants and smart drugs come mostly in the form of pills, and lots of them are actual medicines that are used to treat illnesses like depression, narcolepsy (a condition where you can’t stay awake) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). But when they get taken by people who aren’t sick and don’t need them, they can have other effects - like helping you concentrate, improving your memory and keeping you awake and alert. There are also drugs that can increase your red blood-cell count, which makes you fitter - so you’re better at sports and can also recover more quickly after getting out of breath.

The downside of doping

But it’s not all fun and games - there’s also a whole range of side-effects to think about. Unlike the X-men whose awesome powers are already a natural part of their bodies, when we try to artificially give ourselves superpowers we can also give ourselves some super-problems.

For example, some PEDs can have horrible emotional and mental side-effects - like making people crazily aggressive or incredibly depressed. And others can have physical effects, which can be as small as making you break out in spots or as extreme as giving you heart problems or meaning you’re not able to have children. One obsessed bodybuilder even got an infection from injecting anabolic steroids and his arm actually exploded! The surgeons had to cut away all the muscle he’d worked so hard to get in order to save his arm. 

Not to mention the darkest side of doping - death. People have died from overdosing on PEDs or even just using a regular amount but having a bad reaction. Surely no super power is worth risking your life for?

And another big downside could be that the only people who get to see your superhuman powers are your prison cellmates - all PEDs are banned from sporting events, schools and workplaces and many are even illegal. Just think of the famous sportswomen and men who’ve been stripped of medals and titles after they’ve been caught using PEDs.

Conclusion: playing with performance-enhancers is definitely a risky game.

Superdrugs for superhumans?

But research isn’t slowing down in this area and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we invent PEDs that are completely safe - and that can enhance our abilities beyond anything that’s possible now. Who knows, maybe in the future popping a few smart pills and swallowing an extra dose of human growth hormones with breakfast might be as commonplace as taking vitamins.

But the question really is whether drugs will ever be able to make us into real-life X-men. Will the powers they could give us mean we’ll be genuinely superhuman - or will we only ever be incredibly drugged-up regular humans? Your call.


If you’re a mutant, blame your parents!

Researchers at Oxford University have been checking out whether it’s our mums or our dads that give us most of our genes - and our gene mutations. Check out which parent is most likely to make you into a mutant… 



The study

The offspring of chimpanzees inherit 90% of new mutations from their father, and just 10% from their mother, a finding which demonstrates how mutation differs between humans and our closest living relatives and emphasises the importance of father's age on evolution.

Researchers from Oxford University's Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in the Netherlands report in Science how they looked at whether in chimpanzees there was a heightened risk of fathers passing on mutations to their children compared to humans.  

In humans, each individual inherits, on average, about 70 new mutations from their parents. However, this number is influenced by paternal age such that older fathers tend to result in more mutations – in humans each extra year of age results in two extra mutations. 

The findings 

Mutation risk is linked to father's age because the sperm lineage in males keeps dividing, while females have all the eggs they are ever going to produce present at birth. Paternal age is an established risk factor in a number of disorders including schizophrenia and autism.

The study found that the number of new mutations inherited by chimpanzees from their parents is, on average, very similar to that in humans, but that the effect of the father's age is much stronger – each additional year of father's age results in three extra mutations.

The results suggest that sexual selection can influence the rate of evolution through its effect on the male mutation rate. 

Professor Gil McVean, from Oxford University's Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics said: 'In humans, a father's age is known to affect how many new mutations he passes on to his children, and is also an established risk factor in a number of mental health disorders. 

'This study finds that in chimpanzees the father's age has a much stronger effect on mutation rate – about one and a half times that in humans.  As a consequence, a greater fraction of new mutations enter the population through males, around 90 per cent, compared to humans, where fathers account for 75 per cent of new mutations.' 

In the study, Wellcome Trust-funded researchers sequenced the genomes of nine western chimpanzees from a three generation family living at the biomedical primate research centre in the Netherlands. To establish the number of new mutations a child inherits researchers sequence children and their parents and compare the genetic sequence – any change in the sequence that doesn’t exist in either parent genome is a new mutation. To find out which parent the mutation comes from you need to sequence members of the next generation of the family.

The conclusion

One explanation for this difference is that chimpanzees, as a result of their mating system, have evolved to produce many more sperm than humans – their testes are over three times the relative size of a human. This means there are likely to be more cycles of sperm production, increasing the opportunity for new mutations to emerge. 

The authors suggest that more work needs to be done across other species to investigate the impact of mating behaviour on mutation rates and male mutation bias.

Source: Wellcome Trust

Read the original article on the University of Oxford's News blog. 

The future of genetic mutation: could your grand kids be X-men?

Over millions of years there have been many changes in the gene codes of human beings - but how far will we evolve and what will we become? Juan Enríquez is an academic and Life Sciences businessman and he believes that your grandchildren could end up being an entirely different species to you...

Could there be real-life X-men?

  • Humans can do some pretty incredible things

    Some people in life stand out as they can do some immensely unique and amazing things with their minds and bodies. For example, Stephen Wiltshire has a remarkable memory and can draw things in intricate detail after he’s only seen them once. Then there’s Biba Struja who can withstand electrical currents, and Scott Flansburg who can outperform a calculator with his record-breaking Maths ability. In light of this, it might be that superpowers aren't just reserved for superheroes! Do you have a special skill or talent? 

  • It’s not always real

    Sometimes all is not what it seems as people can enhance their bodies, minds and performance with drugs. These can include anabolic steroids that help build muscle mass and increase strength; human growth hormones that help with muscle/cartilage growth and repair, and regulate weight, and stimulants that can improve concentration, memory and alertness. Although this sounds great on the surface of it all, there are still significant risks with each of these drugs but who knows what the future holds..? 

  • Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary

    It’s not just the exceptional few that can do incredible things. The human body is so complex that it performs remarkable processes on an everyday basis sometimes without us knowing it! Did you know that the acid in your stomach is strong enough to dissolve razor blades? Also, we have a stronger bite than a gorilla when body size is allowed for. And we are one of the only animals that can run long enough and fast enough to engage in persistent hunting. Pretty amazing hey?!

  • Not all genetic mutations are positive

    Although some genetic mutations can be beneficial and some genetic diversity can keep a population healthy, unfortunately, other types of genetic mutation can lead to disease and inherited genetic disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease. And so far from being empowering, these disorders can cause pain and distress in the patients suffering from them.