Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Avengers: Is It Possible Someone Could Turn Into A Hulk?

"The Avengers: Age of Ultron" has finally arrived, reuniting fans with their favorite superheroes and introducing them to new ones to cheer on, like Quicksilver.  

Judging from the never-ending string of successful superhero films, it seems safe to say that we're obsessed with champions of justice who harbor extraordinary abilities. No doubt we've shared this fascination with superpowers since the beginning. Some of us are born faster, stronger, smarter - causing the rest of us to wonder whether we can tap into some hidden superpower within ourselves. We love hearing stories of genius and watching talent shows, just to catch a glimpse of someone crossing the threshold of what we thought was the boundary of human capability.

Stanford biologist Sebastian Alvarado is no exception, but he is endeavoring to put some scientific plausibility behind some of our favorite superheroes. Take the Hulk, for instance. The Hulk is the muscular green beast that scrawny scientist Bruce Banner transforms into whenever he gets enraged.

A lot of scientists can identify with Dr. Banner’s plight, and I have seen many undergo an analogous transformation while reading their grant reviews.
How did Dr. Banner gain this blessing and curse? As a scientist, he was researching how people summoned these unusual bursts of strength. Using himself as a guinea pig, he exposed himself to gamma radiation in an attempt to become stronger. There was no noticeable effect at first, but when Dr. Banner got angry, his skin turned green and his muscles burst out of his shirt. Since Dr. Banner is a good guy, the Hulk is generally a good beast, although somewhat messy. When the anger subsides, Dr. Banner returns to his modest, wimpy self and heads to the store to buy new clothes.

The comic book tale prompted Dr. Alvarado to wonder:  is this even remotely possible? He addresses the question in the video below.

Let’s clarify a few of these points for those who might be less familiar with the concepts. First, gamma radiation blasts your DNA (chromosomes) apart. As Dr. Alvarado mentioned, there are enzymes that will “heal” the DNA, but it doesn’t always heal correctly, which might result in new genes (and the loss of other genes). Second, we are learning more and more that genes are regulated in a surprising number of ways. They are not merely binary switches that turn on and off, but rather they are controlled more like volume knobs. Epigenetics refers to the factors in your cells that have their fingers on those volume knobs.

We discussed epigenetics in a previous article covering Ozzy Osbourne’s genome; in the case of the Hulk, epigenetics provides an attractive means to account for how Dr. Banner can switch between Hulk and normal guy. Between transformations, Dr. Banner’s genes are not changing, but which ones are active – and the degree they are active – is changing. For example, epigenetic factors can crank up genes controlling muscle development when they receive a signal in the form of a stress hormone that increases during temper tantrums. As this hormone subsides, other epigenetic factors return the volume of those genes to their normal level. You can think of genes as the selection of music, but epigenetic factors are the DJs.
So what kinds of epigenetic factors are there? We are discovering a dizzying array of cellular components that can alter gene expression, which can result in changes in physical appearance, behavior, mental abilities, and more. It has long been known that chemical modification (i.e. methylation, delivered by enzymes called DNMTs – DNA methyltransferases) of DNA itself can shut down genes. DNA methylation marks are like orange construction cones blocking the highway. Scientists then discovered that histone proteins, which congregate in bundles of 8 to form nucleosomes, could also be chemically modified in several different ways. The nucleosomes give DNA the “beads on a string" appearance shown below.

This is your DNA, not a pearl necklace! The DNA "string" wraps around the "beads", which are nucleosomes composed of 8 histone proteins. Once thought to merely help package DNA, we now know these nucleosomes are major contributors to the regulation of genes on the DNA.

These proteins were long thought to be just scaffolding components for the DNA, but now we know they play a major role in directing the activity level of nearby genes. Numerous chemical modifications, such as acetylation, methylation, phosphorylation (and more), can take place on multiple places of each histone protein. These may alter the binding between nucleosomes and DNA, making certain genes more accessible, or these modifications may form a cellular “code” that can affect gene expression levels.

Histones can also be moved, replaced, or evicted by epigenetic factors called SWI/SNF ATPases. As the name implies, these enzymes require energy from ATP to affect gene expression. More recently, it has also been found that small non-coding RNA molecules can regulate genes.

A summary of the major epigenetic factors that can regulate the "volume" of gene expression.

While these complex methods a cell employs to influence gene expression offer a potential explanation for how someone could temporarily become a Hulk, it is by no means probable. Most massive gamma radiation doses would destroy genes that are essential to survival. But it is fun to use cutting-edge science to put just a tiny hint of credence behind the superpowers. And even more fun to think that with enough knowledge we may be able to modulate epigenetic factors to treat disease or maximize human potential.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter.

Falkenberg KJ, & Johnstone RW (2014). Histone deacetylases and their inhibitors in cancer, neurological diseases and immune disorders. Nature reviews. Drug discovery PMID: 25131830

Haggarty P, Hoad G, Harris SE, Starr JM, Fox HC, Deary IJ, & Whalley LJ (2010). Human intelligence and polymorphisms in the DNA methyltransferase genes involved in epigenetic marking. PloS one, 5 (6) PMID: 20593030

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