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The Fantastic Four movie opened recently in theaters, the latest in a line of comic book franchises brought to the big screen. The new film as well as the comics showcase a family that undergoes adventures often dealing with the fantastic, and with science. In the movie, the characters gain their abilities after exposure to an alternate dimension; however, in the original comics the characters gain their abilities, including the ability to fly, turn invisible, or have immense strength, through exposure to cosmic radiation. But what is cosmic radiation, and what are the effects of radiation interacting with a normal human body?
Cosmic radiation generally refers to small charged particles emitted from a celestial object, such as a star, during events such as coronal ejections or even supernovas. These particles are often charged, such as helium nuclei (similar to alpha radioactive decay), hydrogen nuclei (similar to beta radioactive decay), or other isotopes, but with a much higher speed and thus energy. There are other forms of radiation, such as gamma rays, x-rays, or UV-rays, that also exist in space as well as on earth, and also can present additional health hazards. These health hazards come in the form of energy that is able to penetrate the normal barriers of the body (like skin), resulting in damage or changes to the DNA of cells, which can result in a variety of health conditions, including death.
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Radiation can cause many forms of DNA damage. Often, these sites of damage can be recognized and fixed by enzymes within the cell; if the cell is unable to fix the DNA damage it may halt cellular division, or induce cell death. This prevents cells with mutated DNA from propagating into cancer. Even in cases where the cell is able to repair the damage, repair can result in mutation of the DNA sequence. The mutation might occur in a site that doesn’t interfere with the cell’s normal state, but if the mutation is in a gene essential for cell survival or function, the cell might turn cancerous or die. If the DNA damage is spread over a large area of the body this may result in tissue and organ failure, and can lead to death. However, due to the ability to cause DNA damage regardless of what state a cell is in, radiation can be used as an effective tool against already cancerous cells. This can lead to an arrest of cell division or induce death of the cancerous cells, which can halt the further spread of the cancer.
So unfortunately, radiation is out as a source of superpowers in the real world, as similar exposure to what is shown in the comics would leave a normal person severely injured or worse. Mutation caused by radiation has been the inspiration for many superheroes gaining their abilities, such as Spider-man and the Incredible Hulk. Random mutation is likely to be harmful to the exposed cells, but there are methods, such as targeted gene therapies, that might be able to introduce select mutations to the cells. As a whole though, radiation in the real world is much different from its portrayal in the comics, as are the effects radiation has on people.
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