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Uncovering the genomic secrets of superpowers

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July 9, 2015

In 1990, the idea of sequencing a human whole genome was little more than science fiction. An international team of scientists worked for more than a decade to tackle this “moonshot,” which was accomplished in 2003. This feat of mapping a person’s DNA can now be accomplished in a day, and Illumina is proud to be a leader in unlocking the power of the genome.

As our hometown of San Diego hosts Comic-Con this week, we honor the imagination it inspires. Here's what you might find if you traced the genetic traits of some of your favorite superheroes.  

 1. Ant-Man

Origin:
Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym is the man who discovered how to shrink objects while conducting research for the benefit of mankind. Testing the experimental serum on himself, he shrank down much smaller than expected and was unable to reach his antidote. This led him on an adventure into an anthill before finally restoring himself and developing a means to control ants, a power which he uses to fight criminals.

Superpower: Has the ability to shrink to roughly the size of an ant, also can communicate telepathically with insects, and (as Ant-Man) can punch with as much force as a normal sized person.

How genomics might play a role: With more than 10,000 known species, the mighty ant is one of the most successful life forms on the planet and a powerful model for social behavior, chemical weaponry, and physical adaptations. Genomic studies are just beginning to uncover how genes influence and modify the spectacular powers of these miniscule marvels.

2. The Flash

Origin: 
A bolt of lightning streaked through a window, shattered a chemical cabinet and covered Barry Allen in the electrified chemicals.

Superpower: Super speed.

How genomics might play a role: Unraveling exactly how much your DNA or your environment influences complicated physical abilities like running speed presents a blazing challenge to today’s researchers. Luckily, the meager lab mouse is an excellent model to further illuminate these questions. 

3. Green Lantern 

Origin: Hal Jordan, a test pilot who was given a power ring by a dying alien, Abin Sur.

Superpower:  Green Lantern's power ring gives him all of his abilities. It is limited to the imagination in that it is a weapon of the mind and powered by will. It is used offensively by crafting weapons or defensively by creating shields. It is also used to fly and creates an aura allowing him to fly through space.

How genomics might play a role: If you worked in a molecular bio lab during the 1990s, you will clearly recall cloning genes upstream of the green fluorescent protein and watching your mutants light up at 488 nanometers. Now available in a rainbow of colors, genetically modified fluorescent proteins are molecular workhorses that continue to help illuminate the secrets of RNA and DNA.

4. Silver Surfer

Origin:
Given a fraction of the Power Cosmic by Galactus.

Superpower: Wields "the power cosmic," absorbing and manipulating the universe's ambient cosmic energies. He can augment his strength to incalculable levels, and is almost totally indestructible. He can navigate space, hyperspace and dimensional barriers, and can fly at near-limitless speeds on his board, entering hyperspace when he exceeds light speed. The Surfer does not require food, drink, air or sleep, sustained entirely by converting matter into energy.

How genomics might play a role: Not having to rely on the environment for sustainable energy is a really handy survival tool, and some microbes can do just that. By encapsulating themselves in endospores, these bacteria can survive without nutrients, and are resistant to ultraviolet radiation, extreme temperatures, and chemical disinfectants for years.

5. Sue Storm (Invisible Woman)

Origin:
Gained superpowers after exposure to cosmic rays during a scientific mission to outer space.

Superpower: Can render herself invisible and project powerful force fields.

How genomics might play a role: While not able to render themselves invisible, cephalopods, whose members include squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, are masters of the art of camouflage in their watery and treacherous environments. A slew of ongoing studies are probing the genomes of these deep sea denizens to understand what triggers their specialized cells to rapidly change skin color and even texture.

6. Superman

Origin:  Superman is born Kal-El on the alien planet Krypton. His parents, Jor-El and Lara, become aware of Krypton's impending destruction and Jor-El begins constructing a spacecraft to carry Kal-El to Earth. During Krypton's last moments, Jor-El places young Kal-El in the spacecraft and launches it. Jor-El and Lara die as the spacecraft barely escapes Krypton's fate. The explosion transforms planetary debris into kryptonite, a radioactive substance that is lethal to superpowered (as by Earth's yellow sun) Kryptonians.

Superpower: Flight, invulnerability, superhuman strength, endurance, speed, and intelligence.

How genomics might play a role: Not to delve into the Superman vs. Batman debate… the only mammal capable of sustained flight is the bat. Peering into the genomes of bats provides clues into how these winged wonders evolved. Astonishingly, DNA also tells the story of how bats developed powers of invulnerability to certain diseases by virtue of an amazing immune system.

7. Wonder Woman

Origin:
Member of a tribe of women named the Amazons, native to Paradise Island – a secluded island set in the middle of a vast ocean.

Superpower: Flight, highly developed fighting skills and is an expert in armed and unarmed combat. She can use the sword, axe and bow. Her Amazonian blood gives her enhanced hearing, vision, speed, strength, and great regeneration properties.

How genomics might play a role: In today’s world, links between physical prowess, strength and the human genome are not crystal clear. In the future, this active area of research may uncover clues about how your genetic inheritance may help you earn that black belt.