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Stanford Biologist Explains the Science of Cap’s Strength and Hulk’s Muscles

Stanford biologist Sebastian Alvarado wants to make you an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. — at least a part of their science division.

Working in tandem with Marvel to bring the science of its superheroes to the people in a new Times Square exhibit, Alvarado now has two videos covering his work trying to figure out how to make a regular human into a Captain America or The Incredible Hulk. For Captain Steve Rodgers, the secret is in the serum, as Alvarado explains:

Though there’s no way to tell what was in that fictional injection, we have a good idea of what it did for Cap: he had his genes tweaked. For example, we know the genes responsible for the amount of oxygen that is ferried around your blood and that increase muscle mass. These were likely altered for Rodgers. And as the science of genetics advances, being able to turn these genes on and off will plausibly lead to physical enhancements that Captain America enjoys. Epigenetics then — the study of how the environment regulates and changes the expression of genes within our DNA — could get us closer to Cap.

“We have a lot of genome-editing tools – like zinc finger nucleases, or CRISPR/Cas9 systems – that could theoretically allow you to epigenetically seek out and turn on genes that make your muscles physically large, make you strategically minded, incredibly fast, or increase your stamina,” Alvarado said in a Stanford press release.

And the “Vita-Rays” that activated all the serum’s potential in Rodgers aren’t far-fetched either. We are developing drug capsules that can release their contents when hit with ultraviolet light. It’s not clear how this delayed reaction would enhance any super serum we come up with, but maybe that is the only way to deliver the drugs safely. Maybe.

Next up is the ion-smashed genome of the Hulk:

The Incredible Hulk is an incredible genetic anomaly. Bruce Banner got his super-powered rage when he was blasted with lethal amounts of gamma radiation. Gamma radiation is dangerous because it has enough energy to be ionizing radiation — electromagnetic radiation (like radio waves or visible light) strong enough knock electrons off of atoms and molecules. So when Banner was exposed to his fateful gamma ray burst, the ionizing radiation ripped atoms and molecules and electrons from his DNA, nearly destroying it. But somehow his body and his DNA rebuilt itself, allowing him to Hulk-out.

Alvarado speculates that what allows the Hulk to transition from Banner to the Big Green Guy also happens to be some kind of epigenetics. Because Banner can transition between the two so easily, it would seem as though certain genetic light switches are being flipped on and then off again. This process is different from something like genetic mutations, which aren’t reversible.

My favorite bit of superhero science that Alvarado explains is why the Hulk is green. He muses that because the process of becoming the Hulk is so violent — muscles stretching and tearing, veins popping — the result of the transformation is a lot of cellular damage. Normally, when these damaged cells are recycled by your body, the chemical byproducts can produce a greenish color in the skin, much like how a bad bruise sometimes has a tinge of green. The Hulk is green because he is one big bruise. That would make me angry too.

Alvarado’s efforts to bring superheroes closer to science is a part of the interactive Avengers-based exhibition, Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., in Times Square in New York City. He and his fellow scientists actually had a panel based entirely on Marvel superhero science at Comic-Con this year, which you can read about here.

Of course, one thing science still can’t solve is how Bruce Banner’s pants stay on.

IMAGE: © Marvel

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