What’s a Mutant?

In the X- men mythos, mutants are people that posses a special alteration to their genetic code called an “X-gene.” For each person, the X-gene manifests itself in unique ways, usually during puberty, and grants the gene carrier superhuman abilities ranging from control of the weather to telekinesis and shapeshifting. In the latest X-men movie Apocalypse, the father of all mutants, wants to cleanse the world of humans and make way for a world ruled by mutantkind. The funny part about this is ‘ol Apocalypse is contradicting himself because technically, humans are already mutants. You may be thinking,  “Bill, the kindly mailman from down the street, a mutant?” But it’s not quite as outlandish as it sounds.

Mutations in the DNA sequences that make up our genes are one of the  main reasons for the diversity of organisms on earth. Within any population a few animals will be born with random genetic mutations. Some of these mutations are bad and can cause disease, but others are good because they are perfect for specific environments, and thereby increase an organism’s  chances of survival and reproduction. Over millions of years and many generations, the mutations that give the best survival advantages in each environment will be passed on to more and more offspring until they are spread throughout the population. This is evolution through natural selection in a nutshell; millions of years of small mutations that allow new, specially adapted species to branch off from older ones. It is painstakingly slow, but effective.

So, barring some large cataclysmic event a la NBC’s Heroes (remember that show?)  the mutants seen in X-men wouldn’t just start popping up after a few measly generations for no reason. Instead, they would take hundreds of thousands of years to branch off from homo sapiens sapiens (humans) into the homo sapiens superior of comic book and movie lore, and the mutations would vary based on environmental pressures, not what writers thought sounded cool. The only mutant in the movies that almost gets it right is the aptly named Darwin from X-Men: First Class, who had the ability to automatically adapt to any situation or environment he was placed in.

Some mutations don’t actually do anything, while others actually do grant some unique appearances and abilities. For example, 12 percent of women carry a mutation that gives their eyes four color receptors instead of three like most people. A portion of these women, called tetrachromats, can use all four color receptors to their full capacity and see over 90 million more colors than the average human, experiencing the everyday world in a way the majority of us can’t even imagine.

However, many of the real-life genetic mutations we know about today can also be linked to various diseases and disorders. If you see someone that has an uncanny resemblance to Beast, Mystique, or Apocalypse himself, they probably have methemglobinemia. Caused by a mutation in a gene called CYBR53, methemglobinemia reduces the blood’s ability to release oxygen into the body’s tissues and results in distinctly blue-hued skin. While sometimes deadly, this disease is mostly treatable, but with treatment the blue color slowly fades. Methemglobinemia also be acquired through prolonged exposure to certain drugs and chemicals such as nitrites, but please if you’re going to cosplay for the movie premiere, opt for some skin safe paint instead.

With advances in science and technology, we can now conduct genetic tests that allow people to know if they have mutations putting them at risk for diseases like methemeglobenimia. This helps affected individuals receive faster and more effective treatment, and also tells them the chances of passing these mutations on to their children. Through scientific research, we are learning more each day about the different ways changes in our genes affect the human body.

Though some mutations are more prominent than others, we are all mutants in some way or another, and without mutations we would not have the vibrant and diverse world we do today. So instead of a Wolverine-like healing factor maybe your family just doesn’t bruise very easily, or can see really well in the dark. A billion years from now that could make you the ancestor to a race of space-faring super humans with skin immune to cosmic radiation! You may think that’s a bit far fetched, but remember, we are all descendants of a single-celled organism floating aimlessly in a sea of goop, so who’s to say what the future of mutantkind holds?

Dare to dream, and make sure to catch X Men: Apocalypse in theaters today.

Asante Hatcher
ACES PhotoAsante Hatcher is a third year graduate student interested in pursuing a career in scientific policy and advocacy. His insterests include, but are not limited to, cooking, reading, sports, videogames, and watching re-runs of the 1988 Crystal Light aerobics championship.
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