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The Amazing Spider-Man: Fiction or A Transgenic Reality?


Spider-Man is one of comic’s most recognizable characters. As one of the most tragic superheros in the Marvel universe, Peter Parker has endured it all – high school bullying, awkward romance, and even the death of his Uncle Ben. No matter what the Marvel universe throws at him, Peter takes it in stride, allowing readers to empathize with him.

Many are familiar with the origin story, but here’s a short summary: a radioactive spider bites Peter Parker, who is subsequently transformed into the web swinging Spider-Man. With his newfound abilities like super strength, wall crawling, and the spidey sense, he delivers justice to villains threatening the safety of innocent bystanders. With that being said, how realistic is our web head hero and characters around him?

The creation of transgenic organisms

Andrea Laurel DNA Double Helix. From Flickr Creative Commons.
Andrea Laurel DNA Double Helix. From Flickr Creative Commons.

What has fur, horns, and produces spider silk in its milk? A Spider-Goat! Despite its name, this goat looks normal. These goats were genetically modified at Utah State University to produce an extra protein allowing them to produce spider silk in their milk. This is an example of creating a transgenic organism, a process by which DNA from one species are placed into another. Once the process is complete the milk is pulled from the vats and spun into thread.

However, this is not the first implementation of transgenic technology. In the agricultural community, transgenic organisms are fairly commonplace, and modifications are created by adding, removing, or changing gene sequences in a species. Though publicly debated, the intentions of this technology are to improve crop varieties in the areas of disease and abiotic stress resistance, and enhance yields.

So, transgenic organisms are a reality, at least in goats and plants – yet the idea of applying this technology to humans is highly contentious. Though there is one documented case of human embryos being modified in the lab. Further, the process of creating a full spider-human hybrid would clearly be a very difficult task. For starters, most genes are non-redundant and altering them can result in lethal outcomes. Additionally the process of creating a full spider-human hybrid requires alteration of countless genes, thereby increasing the likelihood of lethality. 

While genetic marvels exist, the creation of a full fledge spider-human hybrid is still in the realm of comic-fiction, but what about some of the other characters in Spider-Man comics?

Got Limb Regeneration?

Like Spider-Goats and plants, rodents are also being used for transgenic purposes. Through evolutionary selection pressures some rodent species have evolved to have accelerated healing abilities, giving them an extra chance to survive the loss of a limb. While this may not seem relevant to Spider-Man, the science behind it is. In the comics, the villain
Dr. Connors, a.k.a. The Lizard, dedicated his life to researching limb regeneration in reptiles, specifically how known limb regeneration genes could be applied to humans through transgenics. A few months ago, scientists studying and observing African Spiny mice found that this rodent possessed an active gene that gives it regenerative abilities. This gene allows the mice to regenerate everything from hair, cartilage, skin, glands, and even self-amputate their own tails — all to escape from predators.

While testing this regeneration, a 4mm hole was punched through the ear of a traditional lab mouse, and that of the African Spiny. The traditional lab mouse regrew the lost area slowly and with scarring over seven days, while the African Spiny had no scarring and took only three. Scientists found that one of the advantages the African Spiny mouse has, is the ability to form blastema, which are a mass of undifferentiated cells that has the capability to form into an organ or appendage. Though still being studied, and decades away from human application – there is hope that this once “superhuman” ability can become commonplace.

From our knowledge of the Marvel Comic, our New York wall crawler and his cast of characters are capable of many feats. Yet with the advent of transgenics and modern science, all of these fictional “superhuman” abilities could exist within our own reality. As we progress in our modern society the advancement of our technology follows along with it, and we hold the ability to make ourselves more powerful than we were before. Maybe one day we will have a world of superheroes and Spider-Man swinging through our cities, but as Uncle Ben once said “with great power comes great responsibility”.

About the Author

Tyus D. Williams is an Undergraduate student at UGA studying in Wildlife Biology. He has a passion in Wildlife Conservation with goals to focus on the preservation of big cats for his career. Outside of his everyday life of science Tyus thoroughly enjoys watching anime and reading comics of classic Marvel series heroes. When he is not training in the ways of the nerd he finds enjoyment playing his guitar or enjoying the outdoors as he loves to hike and rock climb indoor and outdoor. If you would like to hear more from him or get in touch you can contact him at tdw20511@uga.edu.

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