The latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highly anticipated Doctor Strange, the 14th film of the cinematic juggernaut that is Marvel.
After a near fatal accident leaves Strange with irreparable nerve damage, he scours the planet seeking a cure. Eventually, he is introduced to the multiverse—a collection of alternative universes that operate alongside our Universe—and he starts an odyssey of travel between them.
While parallel universes may seem unbelievable, many theoretical physicists have postulated that these universes could exist, and they could have alternative versions of history, Earth, and its people. There could even be a parallel universe full of beings with superpowers. It seems entirely implausible; however, it is (theoretically) entirely possible.
But in truth, there is no need to look towards parallel universes in search of superpowers.
In this Universe, we stand at an unprecedented juncture in our history. It’s not a question of if we’ll develop superpowers; it is now a question of when.
Making a Human Super
In X-Men: Apocalypse, Professor Xavier and his pupils battle the might of Apocalypse—the first mutant to carry the X-Gene (which is what gives mutants their superpowers). And oddly enough, there is real science behind how this works. To break it down, our DNA contains more than 20,000 genes, and when some genes are expressed, they produce proteins such as collagen and haemoglobin. The X-Gene gives the X-Men characters their abilities due, in some part, to the fact that they produce proteins that we do not.
But what if we could make the genes behind Wolverine’s accelerated healing powers or Beast's superhuman strength, could we insert them into our DNA? Perhaps.
The innovative gene editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas has received considerable media attention, and it has already been used to edit the DNA of crops, zebra fish, and even human embryos. In short, CRISPR is a revolutionary gene editing technique that can modify any region of the genome of any species with high precision and accuracy…and it does so without harming other genes.
CRISPR/Cas could be used in the future to insert these "superpower" genes into human DNA. You really could become an X-Person. Or at least, you could become a kind of X-person by boosting your intelligence, becoming immune to disease, and accomplishing any number of other superhuman feats. Thanks to CRISPR, we have the possibility of doing this—of truly redesigning the human race.
Of course, the biological road to superpowers will be a long time coming, due to the required resolution of ethical, societal, and financial issues surrounding human gene editing...but maybe those relishing a superpower future can instead turn to recent advancements in modern technology and materials.
Tech Meets Body
Extracted from graphite by Andre Geim in 2003, graphene sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction novel. It’s essentially carbon dissected at the single-molecule level: The world’s first two-dimensional object. It’s almost transparent and almost weightless, but it’s stronger than steel and diamonds. If that's not enough, it possesses a particularly amazing property. Namely, graphene is one of the best conductors in the world. However, many think that graphene is lacking a "killer application"—that it is novel, but has no real utility.
But is that really so?
What if that "killer" application was in bulletproof vests that are virtually as light as air but can offer better protection than Kevlar or the strongest steel alloys? If you wore such a suit, you could replicate the power of Colossus from Deadpool, whose “organic steel” exterior protects his skin, bones, and organs.
And then there's the Iron Man suit. It’s an exoskeleton suit that protects the wearer, has weapons, and flies with rockets in the gauntlets and boots. And there are several things that we are developing that come close. The Japanese company Cyberdyne has developed an exoskeleton known as HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) 5 that could augment a wearer’s strength or let someone with spinal injuries walk (James Rhodes can be seen wearing a HAL 5-like technology at the end of Captain America: Civil War).
But did you ever stop to think that the Iron Man suit represents the future of biosensors? During the epic airport battle in Captain America: Civil War, Wanda Maximoff drops a number of cars on an unsuspecting Tony Stark. As Tony lies strewn, his AI computer Friday states "Multiple contusions detected."
That's instant diagnosis, and it's coming.
SensUs, an international student competition for biosensor development held at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is focused on this aim. This year, university teams developed miniature sensors to detect creatinine, a biomarker for kidney function. Next year, the focus of the SensUs competition will be on the cardiovascular biomarker NT-proBNP.
Meanwhile, Singularity University alum have created One X, which made the first patented, real-time biosensing device. The tech lets you hack your health with biometrics by reading antioxidant level changes on the skin from the palm of your hand, which could tell us if (and how) different things like sleep, nutrition, exercise, alcohol intake, pollution, sun exposure, and stress are impacting us.
There is still much work to be done in relation to technology and gene editing. But we are getting there. And while it's true that, if you could jump between parallel universes like Doctor Strange, you might eventually land in a universe with superpowers galore, if you did this, you’d be leaving this world behind—a world on the verge of making humanity itself superhuman.
But more than that, this is a world where you might not only use superpowers, you could be one of the pioneering scientists leading the revolution.
Barry W. Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. He received his PhD in Computational Physics from the University of Limerick in 2010. Barry is also the author of the books “Secrets of Superhero Science” and “Secret Science of Santa Claus.”