With a renewed blockbuster movie franchise and a new television show, Supergirl, premiering this week, the House of El has seen renewed cultural relevance and popularity. CBS’s new Supergirl series focuses on Superman’s younger cousin Kara Zor-El, who arrives on Earth as a young teenager and grows up on a Kansas farm before trying to make her way in the city as a young adult (sound familiar?). Inspired by her famous older cousin, she takes up the “family business” and puts her Kryptonian superpowers to use as a crime-fighting hero. Supergirl possesses all the same powers as Superman; super-strength, near invulnerability, enhanced senses, freeze breath, heat vision, and of course, flight (as well as a host of other powers stemming from creative uses of these core powers, depending on the storyteller). Most stories have these powers originate from a combination of Earth’s yellow sun and lower gravitational pull and leave it at that, but what if we take a closer look and try and explore ways you could actually develop some of these superpowers as explained through modern science? For our purposes today, we will take a look at one of the most iconic Kryptonian powers: super-strength.
“Stronger than a locomotive!”
Super-strength is a fairly common staple of comic book heroes and heroines, and resonates well with some of our basic human instincts: to be strong enough to defend ourselves and our loved ones from threats as well as make some everyday tasks much easier. As I mentioned earlier, Supergirl’s strength is derived from yellow star sunlight and Earth’s lower mass. To achieve super-strength, or at least “superior” strength, half of this is actually plausible. We know that if we were to go to a planet with a lower mass than the Earth, we would feel less of a gravitational pull. This would allow us to perform athletic feats not normally possible on Earth. For an example, look no farther than astronauts visiting Earth’s moon. The force of gravity on the Moon is 1/6 that of Earth. That means a 150 lb. woman would only weight 25 lbs. on the Moon! Human musculature is adapted for life on Earth, so for a time, you could perform superhuman feats on the Moon. The problem is, the human body eventually gets used to the lower gravitational pull and your muscles and skeletal system begin to degenerate. This means that Supergirl would probably rather quickly lose her super-strength if Earth’s lower mass was the only factor. However, losing the gene that is involved in the regulation of muscle growth can have interesting effects on the body. Myostatin is a protein that normally inhibits muscle growth and keeps muscle from over-developing. When it was lost in mice (as well as a breed of dog called whippets, and a breed of cows called Belgian Blues) the muscle mass doubled, and strength increased. . The lack of a muscle growth inhibitor paired with lower gravity could explain a Kryptonian’s great strength, and perhaps counteract the effects of muscle degeneration! This is a bit faulty though, as neither Superman or Supergirl is depicted as having that much of an increase in musculature.
So, is super-strength really possible? Sure, to a certain degree and from a certain perspective though probably not to the degree depicted by Supergirl. With modern advances in biology and engineering however, who knows? Maybe one day we can all out-muscle a train!
Rogers Brown is a 4th year developmental biology graduate student. He is interested in becoming a science educator when he “grows up”, and spends his free time exploring science fiction and fantasy in various media.