Paranormal Phenomenon Omnibus

Mutants: Reality and Fiction

Article by Matt Allair

Speculation and Basic Definitions / Understanding DNA / Detrimental and Beneficial Mutations / The impact of Environment

Let us suppose that someone you personally know, who appeared to be perfectly normal, physically in every respect, yet held traits, abilities or instincts that were a leap beyond known evolution. What if something that is widely believed to be only possible in the minds of science fiction writers could be made possible? - naturally evolved human mutations.

The X-Files throughout its nine seasons, often explored the idea of mutants or genetic monsters that existed outside the realm of accepted science. Yet how many of the hypotheses presented were based on solid science? The answer is a reasonable number. Yet, in order to understand what the term 'mutation' means in the scientific community, we should first have a basic understanding of the mysterious world of genetics.

Speculation and Basic Definitions / Understanding DNA / Detrimental and Beneficial Mutations / The impact of Environment

Basically, all living organisms are composed of cells; all cells are a liquid compartment surrounded by a barrier called a plasma membrane, which is composed of lipids and proteins. The membrane separates molecules inside the cell from the environment. Formation of a plasma membrane was the key to the origin of life, as it helps to keep out predators like viruses while being able to let in food and water, as well as flushing out wastes. All life is a series of chemical reactions, thus, molecules must physically come together so that new molecules can be formed.

Cells were discovered by Robert Hooke who, in 1665, published Micrographia. In this paper he described his observations on a piece of cork, seeing honeycomb divisions that looked like "A great many little boxes...the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and, perhaps, that were ever seen." Hooke named these tiny compartments "cellulae", the Latin name for "tiny rooms". Hooke's other extraordinary accomplishments include the invention of the respirator, the universal joint, the anemometer and barometer; authorship of the theory of combustion; as well as contributions to physics, astronomy, mathematics and biology.

Basically, one of the inescapable features of cells is that DNA is the genetic material, also called the genome, of the cell. There are four constituents, called nucleotides, which are found in the DNA of all organisms. A chain of DNA in humans can be hundreds of millions of nucleotides long. Nearly all DNA is composed of two chains of nucleotides that coil around each other to form a double helix. The two chains of the helix are held together because nucleotides in one chain pair up and form weak chemical bonds, named hydrogen bonds, with the nucleotide in the sister chain. The four nucleotides in DNA, abbreviated A, G, C and T, always choose the same partners.

Your 100,000 genes turn on and off in different cells and at different times during your life. Only when genes are active can proteins be made from the instructions specified by the genes. The remaining 95 percent of the human genome is known as junk DNA. Scientists have determined that much of the junk DNA is composed of thousands or millions of copies of repeated nucleotide sequences. Also included in the genome is a small segment that's found in half a million copies scattered throughout every chromosome. These small segments, called Alu, create new versions of themselves as they hop around the genome. If an Alu segment jumps into a spot already occupied by an important gene, that gene becomes disrupted and nonfunctional. Thus, the mystery of junk DNA is; if it's just taking up space, or is potentially harmful to important genes, why exist at all?

Because of the existence of 'Junk DNA', in theory, this leaves the possibility open for Mutations in human beings. Mutations are random and often are not beneficial generally speaking. They are accidental changes to the order of nucleotides to the DNA of a cell. In regions of the DNA that are genes, the order of the four nucleotides determines the order of amino acids in a protein. If you change the succession of nucleotides in a gene, you can change the appearance and function of that protein it specifies. Random, individual mutations in Cells cannot affect an organism.

The only mutations one has to worry about are those that disrupt the ability of a cell to remain a good citizen in the body, for example cancerous cell growth. Mutations can sneak into DNA every time a cell splits into two because the cell must first duplicate its DNA. Polymerases, the enzymes that copy DNA have the task of making a replica of DNA chains that contain millions of nucleotide beads. Thus every time a polymerase makes a mistake, and then doesn't correct that mistake, a new mutation appears in the DNA of that cell.

Speculation and Basic Definitions / Understanding DNA / Detrimental and Beneficial Mutations / The impact of Environment

The vast majority of mutations are detrimental; mutations tend to be harmful because it's easier to damage a protein than to improve it. Just about every mutation will have either no effect on a protein or will make it worse. Protein function is rarely improved by random mutations. Thus, the paradox of evolution is this: mutations are required to drive the evolution of an organism yet nearly all mutations are either inconsequential or detrimental. Evolution has had millions of years to respond to the occasional beneficial mutation.

Yet there are examples of beneficial mutant genes driving evolution today. As HIV continues to cause AIDS, some individuals who are at high risk never become inflected with the virus. A mutant gene that helps protect people from HIV is found in the genomes of 10 percent of people descended from Northern Europeans. If two copies of the defective gene are present, as they are in 1 percent of this population, then those people have a greater resistance to HIV.

For a mutant gene to become widespread in a limited population, something must have occurred where a person's survival depended on the mutation, most likely a different epidemic. Some scientists have calculated that this mutation was first present seven hundred years ago during the bubonic plague of Northern Europe. If the mutant gene was present in 1 percent of the population before the epidemic, it may have been found in 90 percent of the reduced population after the plague killed off those who did not have the gene.

Of course it is one thing for an evolutionary mutation to be triggered, out of necessity, due to a plague. Yet can catastrophic events trigger mutations, and more to the point, entire organisms?

The second 'hibernating gene' produces an enzyme that helps to conserve the body's supply of glucose so it isn't used up too rapidly. In addition, this enzyme ensures that the remaining supply of glucose left over from the body's last meal is used to maintain the body's most vital systems - the brain and central nervous system.

Speculation and Basic Definitions / Understanding DNA / Detrimental and Beneficial Mutations / The impact of Environment

There's arguable evidence that Global warming could trigger mutations in various organisms. In an article published in the journal Nature, University of Chicago scientist Susan Lindquist, and colleagues found that environmental stresses like hot temperatures can cause substantial changes in nature's creatures within a single generation. Using fruit flies, Lindquist discovered that high temperatures caused normal looking flies to have offspring with all kinds of deformities.

These deformities were passed on to the next generation, indicating the DNA itself had mutated. The stress itself wasn't causing the mutations, these were already in the populations of the flies, yet something was masking the mutations; that is until an environmental calamity caused the mask to drop off.

That mask is a protein called Hsp90. The Hsp90 protein functions like the police, keeping mutant proteins from having any effect on an organism. In addition, when an organism is stressed Hsp90 stops controlling the mutation and instead is co-opted into helping the organism survive. One question that might be asked is, why did organisms develop such a system as Hsp90?

One explanation is that it allows rapid evolution during times when an organism needs it most. Of course, most physical deformities are highly detrimental. Even humans have the Hsp90 protein. Thus, hypothetically, the mutants featured on The X-Files could have developed their unique attributes due to a natural catastrophe over the span of centuries or decades.

Roth has pointed out: "Understanding the connections between random instances of seemingly miraculous, unexplained survival in so-called clinically dead humans and our ability to induce - and reverse - metabolic quiescence in model organism could have dramatic implications for medical care."

As previously mentioned, little research has been done on junk DNA or the Alu segment. Thus, until there's further evidence that humanoid mutants could be out of the question in theory. We can always continue the speculation that if it's possible that humanoid mutants could exist. Chris Carter himself once asked no other than Stephen Hawking, his feelings about science fiction or pseudoscience, who replied that science fiction and science had something to give one another, that science fiction is no more pseudo than cosmology.

While the notion of Mutants might still be a popular component of science fiction, one should not dismiss today's fiction, as it is possible that tomorrow might prove the existence of human mutants, depending on how Earth's environment changes. The reality, however, is that most human mutations would probably continue to be subtle and a slow going process.

Source:"The Real Science Behind The X-Files" by Anne Simon, Ph.D © 1999, 2001 Touchstone books, Simon and Schuster

Page editor: Red Scully

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