From the Troma library of films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High to the higher concept blockbuster science fiction movies like Total Recall and Godzilla, mutants have been almost entirely bad news. While some movies have an occasional mutant that puts it in a class of it’s own – like the character of the Rainmaker in Looper – Hollywood generally considers mutations really problematic.
Except the X-Men, of course. In the X-Men universe, mutants are the not-so-meek that will inherit the Earth. Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) in X-Men tries to legally oppress them. Professor Charles Xavier provides a sanctuary for young mutants. There are constant battles brewing throughout these films between good mutants and bad ones. However, one thing remains the same in all of these scenarios: mutants have great powers bestowed upon them.
As Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) states at the beginning of the first film: “Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years, but every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
And that got me thinking… is the human race on the brink of astounding genetic changes? Are X-Men types of mutation the next step in human evolution?
The Answer: Nope. Except for in comic books and movies.
To understand how mutation works, you have to understand how DNA works. That might be a daunting concept to some, but boiled down, it’s not that difficult. In essence, DNA is the blueprint for an organism. It stores all the information on how that organism looks, what it does, how it interacts with its environment, and all the biological processes that take place. Data in DNA is stored in a pattern of code, much like the 1s and 0s that store information in a computer.
For the DNA to do anything, the double-helix structure unravels, and the string of data is translated into proteins, which drive biological function. Think of this like engraved plates (the DNA) of an old printing press making a copy of a printed page (the protein). Without DNA (and its close cousin RNA), the body could not synthesize proteins, and biological processes would not be possible. And without Dino DNA, we couldn’t have a cool baby Utahraptor.
DNA can replicate itself, which is like a computer making an exact copy of file. While there are many safeguards in place within an organism’s cells to ensure the copy comes out right, mistake can happen. These mistakes are known as mutations.
Mutations can be as simple as a transcription error from the DNA to the protein, like a smudge happening on the aforementioned printing press. More persistent mutations occur when a mistake happens during DNA replication. Using the computer file analogy, it’s a small corruption in the copy that makes it different from the original.
Sometimes these mutations happen to the body’s cells, which can present themselves as cancerous tumors, for example. When it comes to the evolution of a species, if the mutation happens to reproductive cells, it will be present in the creature’s offspring.
So can these mutations give you super powers?
Many mutations go unnoticed or do not present themselves as either advantageous or detrimental to the organism. Other mutations happen in sections known as introns, which are the large chunks of unused genetic code. However, because mutations affect protein production, it can have a huge impact on an organism’s well-being. It’s not uncommon for mutations to be dangerous or possibly lethal, as the Troma films seem to predict.
However, sometimes a mutation is beneficial, or downright “groovy,” as the younger version of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) says in X-Men: First Class. The mutations that Xavier notes in these scenes are small ones, usually color changes in appearance: heterochromia (multiple eye color) and MCR1 mutation (auburn hair).
This is how most mutations present themselves: a small physical, behavioral, or physiological change. When they happen over thousands, or millions, of years, the mutations can lead to great diversity in a species.
Unfortunately, there’s no single mutation that will result in spectacular physical differences and bizarre powers. The vast number of mutations that would have to occur simultaneously for an organism to be born with skin, eye, and hair color differences like Mystique are staggering, let alone the inconceivable number of genetic changes that would have to take place to allow an organism to spontaneously change his or her shape at will. In the same vein, a mutant like Nightcrawler would have to undergo massive and numerous physical mutations all at the same time to appear as he does, and that’s not even taking into account the complex physiological changes that would be necessary for the mutant to teleport. (Hell, I’m pretty sure that’s not even possible with unlimited genetic changes.)
Even a relatively simple general mutation like Wolverine’s invulnerability requires sweeping and complex physiological changes, considering how many biological processes would be required to regenerate everything from flesh, muscle, bone, and nerve tissue.
Unfortunately, a massive, tragic accident can’t make you a superhero either.
I don’t care that Patrick Stewart sounds really cool stating the contrary. In the end, these types of mutations could never happen, at least not to a single individual without the benefit of millions of years of evolution. And, since mutations are mathematically driven and not end-result driven, they are not predisposed to be beneficial to the organism. So, if there are massive, sweeping mutations happening, there’d be a whole lot of bad ones, and if that’s happening, where is the huge up-tick in infant mortality rates and miscarriages that would result in massive lethal mutations during embryonic development?
But there still might be a possibility.
While complex genetic mutation resulting in Wolverine, Mystique, and Nightcrawler is unlikely in the extreme, there are some X-Men that might be possible.
Because most mutations result in a small change in protein synthesis, there are some movie mutants that could develop their powers with a minor but significant difference. Take the psychic-driven mutants like Professor X or Jean Grey. While powerful characters in the X-Men series, their power is actually quite simple. They exhibit powerful telekinetic and telepathic abilities.
While many scientists would dismiss psychic powers as hogwash, some do theorize there is potential for them. Is it possible that these could result in a mutation that leads to a difference in brain function?
Similarly, characters like Magneto and Storm have more specific psychic abilities; Magneto can control anything metal while Storm can control the weather. While the concepts behind these powers are too narrow for real-world science, they represent a form of psychic ability.
So, crazy mutations that cause massive changes in physical appearance or physiological capabilities are things of fantasy. Psychic mutants that control the weather are pretty much things of fantasy as well… but at least it’s closer to possible than the former.