Does 'X-Men' technology exist? How CRISPR could create the next Logan.


In 1974, Wolverine made his first appearance in the Marvel comics, donning his razor-sharp Adamantium claws and displaying his incredible mutant powers of healing, strength and speed. Then, in the '90s, scientists began diving into what is now known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR — a genome editing technology borrowed from bacteria that allows for hyper-specific manipulation of DNA, or as some call it: controlled evolution. In other words, technology that could soon grant us all the same superhuman powers as Wolverine from the Logan movie.

It sounds far fetched, and frankly too good to be true, but CRISPR has already been used to treat cancer in a handful of clinical trials, and many scientists believe this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

"CRISPR has completely transformed the landscape for how we study gene function," says Dr. Steven Pollard, a brain tumor expert from Edinburgh's MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, according to Cancer Research U.K. "It's opening up the human genome for us to be able to do what we want genetically."

CRISPR explained

Before we start laying out Wolverine's powers and how CRISPR can be used to imbue humans with the same attributes, let's first define exactly what CRISPR is and how it works.

CRISPR is a mechanism used by bacteria to defend against viral attacks. When a virus latches onto a bacterium, it releases its DNA strand in an attempt to infect its host. The bacterium, in response, uses CRISPR to scan and identify the foreign DNA, then precisely cuts out that snippet of code — the precision of these cuts is extremely important. Interestingly, the bacterium also keeps the virus' DNA on file in case it attacks again.

Scientists currently aim to use this same technology to alleviate genetic disorders, treat diseases of the eye and blood, defeat cancer once and for all, expedite crop and livestock breeding, engineer new antimicrobials and control disease-carrying insects with gene drives, among other endeavors.

Wolverine's powers

Thanks to his genetic mutation, Wolverine is the essence of vitality. He can heal from virtually any wound at a speed far greater than a normal human, has increased stamina, ages at a significantly slowed rate, has enhanced agility and reflexes, possesses superhumanly acute senses and is all but immune to poison, drugs and disease. Not bad, right?

Using CRISPR to make us like Wolverine

According to Marvel, mutants are a sub-species of humanity born with genetic abnormalities that grant them their incredible powers. It's basically a play off of Darwinism's natural selection modality, except instead of taking millions of years for an organism to better adapt to its environment, it happens spontaneously. But like Darwinism, Marvel's mutants acquire new physical and behavioral traits through changes in their DNA, a process CRISPR is quite adept at replicating. 

So how could CRISPR be used to achieve the same results as evolution and make us all like Wolverine? By targeting particular DNA sequences in the genome and changing their genetic blueprint, thereby reprogramming them to function as desired. DNA is the building block of life, and CRISPR could allow scientists to rebuild humans to their liking.

Increased healing? Sure. Why not? CRISPR has already been successfully used to cure a severe form of muscular dystrophy in mice.

Extended lifespan? Check. George Church, co-founder of the gene-editing company Editas Medicine and a geneticist at Harvard and MIT, says forestalling old age could be on the horizon.

"If you want to be useful longer or do aging reversal, that could be preventive medicine," Church says, adding CRISPR could do much more, Wired reports. "But if a therapy was sufficiently good, it would be enhancement."

"Enhancement." Now that's got a nice ring to it.

What about increased physical attributes like strength, speed and stamina? It's already happening. CRISPR tech has been deployed to create hulked out dogs and goats

Immunity to disease? Seems pretty likely since researchers have already cut out HIV genes from live animals.  

How about poison immunity? CRISPR to the rescue yet again. When poisons like cyanide and arsenic are introduced into the body, cells gets wrenched apart and the body starts to shut down. But scientists have used the gene-editing tool to negate these effects.

The hurdles

CRISPR has come a long way since scientists first began tinkering with it in the '90s, but there are still myriad hurdles to overcome before humans are rebuilt in Wolverine's image. Perhaps foremost among them is identifying which genes are responsible for the desired traits — such as increased strength, speed and stamina — and the correlating proteins that control gene expression. Scientists must also find suitable target sites to deliver the modified DNA, otherwise the CRISPR-modified cells will have no effect. It's kind of like having a super high-tech smartphone with no cell towers. 

But researchers are already well on their way to solving these problems, and it's not a far stretch to think we will see some real progress in our lifetime. 

In the meantime, you can watch Logan, which drops Friday, and start imagining what it will be like to have Wolverine's powers. 

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