UAS' Pawlus presents on 'Superhero Science'

Dr. Matthew Pawlus, assistant professor of science at the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan, presents “Superhero Science: Biology and Beyond” on Oct. 4 at the UAS Ketchikan Campus Library. Pawlus' presentation focused on how a human's DNA may be changed to grant “superpowers” or unusual abilities. Staff photo by Reagan Miller

The chance of an ordinary person gaining an extraordinary superpower doesn't rest on exposure to deadly chemical or being bitten by a radioactive insect, but on DNA, according to a presentation by Dr. Matthew Pawlus.

On Oct. 4, Pawlus presented “Superhero Science: Biology and Beyond” to a crowd of about 20 listeners in the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus library. The presentation explored how either naturally or medically created genetic mutations could grant someone a superpower — and how it's already happening.

Pawlus, assistant professor of science at UAS Ketchikan, began the hour-long presentation by talking about what makes superheroes – such as Batman, Aquaman, the Hulk, the Flash and other comic book favorites — so appealing to ordinary humans.

“The truth remains that (they) are really these role models that we are able to relate to,” Pawlus explained. “They give us these good, positive values that we can try to emulate in our own lives, in effort to try and grow up with the qualities we see in our favorite superheroes.”

“When I grew up and looked around, one of the questions I asked was, 'where was all the superheroes?'” Pawlus continued. “As I grew up, I became a little disappointed that there wasn't this vast plethora of genetic diversity that I assumed to exist in the superhero world. But just because it's harder to find this in a grown-up adult world doesn't mean it doesn't exist.”

To prove his point, Pawlus compared humans with above-average abilities to their superhero counterparts, using research displayed on a series of projected slides.

Pawlus' first example was Usain Bolt. Bolt is regarded as the fastest man on the planet, holding the record for not only the fastest 100 meters sprint — 9.58 seconds — but the top speed ever held by a human – 27.8 miles per hour.

“This is one example of a super human,” Pawlus said, although he noted that Bolt's superhero counterpart, the Flash, has been known to coast at 2,532 miles per hour in comic books and movies.

While Aquaman still reigns as the best underwater hero, two notable skin divers – those who dive unaided by oxygen or other protective gear – have made successful journeys into the ocean.

At 22 minutes and 22 seconds, skin diver Tom Sietas holds the record for the longest breath ever held. Herbert Nitsch earned the nickname the 'deepest man on earth' after a June 2012 dive that took him 831 feet deep. Aquaman's true capabilities are unknown when it comes to breathing underwater or how deep he can dive.

Superman is known widely for his remarkable strength. Pawlus noted that while fans have calculated Superman's true strength to be equal to the weight of the solar system, humans also hold records for extraordinary feats of strength. Eddie Hall, a professional “strongman,” holds the record for the heaviest dead lift at 1,102 pounds. Weightlifter Paul Anderson is known for successfully lifting a weight of 6,270 pounds.

After noting that superpowers can also be mental — using Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein as examples — Pawlus continued his presentation to discuss what would need to happen to a person's DNA to give them a superpower..

“All living things possess DNA,” Pawlus' lecture notes read on the projected screen.

Pawlus explained that DNA stores information, which is used to build proteins in the body, in a sequence of of four chemicals: cytosine, thymine, guanine and adenine.

Pawlus constructed a chart titled “the path to special abilities” that outlined what processes would need to happen inside the human body to result in a mutation, or a “power.”

The “path to special abilities” starts with DNA, Pawlus explained. He selected the example of lactose tolerance and worked through the process to reveal how the same method that your body uses to produce the ability to tolerate lactose — or the common protein in milk — can be applied to superpowers.

The process that Pawlus outlined includes four steps: the DNA step, “protein” step, “function” step and “ability” step.

In the example, Pawlus began with a strand of DNA, focusing on the LCT gene, or the gene that corresponds to the production of the lactase protein.

In “step” two, the LCT gene was transformed into lactase.

In the “function” step, the protein did its job by aiding in the digestion of lactase, leading to the final “ability” of not being lactose intolerant.

A sequence change leads to a protein structure change, which would change the function of the protein and alter the final ability at the end of the process, Pawlus explained, which is one way a human would potentially be able to utilize a mutation to end up with a superpower.

Pawlus gave two examples of humans who naaturally have a mutated gene that allows them a superpower. Unlike the earlier examples of Bolt, Sietas or Nitsch, these individuals have a change in their genes that directly resulted in their new “powers.”

Pawlus' first example was Eero Mantyranta, a champion Finnish skier who had been named the “first Fin” to test positive for hormone doping. During a study 30 years after Mantyranta tested positive, it was found that he and his family had a mutation that resulted in up to a 50% increase in blood oxygen, via an increased level of red blood cells in his blood.

Because of this condition, Mantyranta experienced less muscle fatigue while skiing, giving him an advantage over competitors.

Using the same process he explained earlier in the presentation, Pawlus explained how the mutation took effect in Mantyranta. It began in the DNA, with the affected EPOR gene, which then translated into a erythropoietin receptor protein. The protein's function was expressed as hematopoiesis – having more red blood cells – which led to a result similar to super endurance.

The second example of a real-world superpower that Pawlus shared was the case of Liam Hoekstra, a young boy with a disorder known as myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy. The condition, which Pawlus noted comes from a mutation of the MST1 gene, leads to a “loss of functional myostatin protein, enhanced muscle growth, decreased body fat and enhanced strength.”

The normal function of the MST1 gene is myogenesis, or the limiting of muscle growth. Pawlus joked that a working myostatin gene was the reason you could go to the gym and lift weights with your friend, but your friend would grow bigger muscles than you. Each body's functioning MST1 gene has a different limit – Hoekstra's body has no limit to the muscle it can develop.

“Is there any way that me, having been born without any of these mutations, might be able to somehow become a superhero?” Pawlus pondered during the presentation.

The answer lies in your DNA. An error in cellular replication could cause a mutation, as would a deletion or insertion into the chemical pattern of your DNA.

Or, you could build your own genes, Pawlus explained.

DNA modification tools such as CRISPR – short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” –  enable scientists to copy, delete or insert chemicals into an individual's DNA, essentially customizing their own unique abilities.

However, there are laws governing the use of this technology. In the United States, this technology is illegal to test on embryos, although there is not a ban on gene-editing software or technology.

He Jiankui, a Japanese scientist, may be facing legal trouble after using the technology on two female embryos.

Japanese law states that if a human embryo is used for this practice, it is prohibited from being returned to a woman's uterus, according to information from the Japan Times about the law, which has been a topic of debate among scientists internationally.

The two embryos that Jiankui had injected with altered genes were allowed to develop into twin fetuses, and were born last October with a mutation that is believed to make the babies resistant to HIV.  

“Odds are that this is not a great way to go about it,” Pawlus said about gene-editing software, which can be bought online for prices as high as $2,000.