Monday 1 February 2010

Ep 121: Science of Superheroes - Wolverine (Part 1)

Wolverine is probably the best known of the X-Men. Commonly known as Logan, Wolverine is a mutant who has animal-keen senses, super bodily strength, retracting claws, and the ability to almost instantly heal himself from injury. And thanks to some evil scientists, he has the near indestructible (and fictional) metal alloy adamantium fused to his bones, meaning that his claws and skeleton are almost unbreakable.

In the second episode of our regular series on the science of superheroes, biochemist Dr Chris Pettigrew (aka Dr Boob) and I discuss where in nature Wolverine's powers can be found, and how we might scientifically create Wolverine in the lab. This is the first of a 2-part show on Wolverine - see below for a brief description of some of the science discussed. Our first superheroes episode was on the science of Wolverine's fellow X-man, and sometime love interest, Mystique.

To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

The name Wolverine comes from the Wolverine animal, which lives in isolated northern areas such as the arctic and alpine regions of Alaska. It is a stocky and strong animal that is very strong for its size and has been known to kill prey as large as moose. The wolverine is not actually a bear or a dog, but rather a mustelid, or in common parlance, a weasel.

While many of Wolverine's powers (such as strength and hearing) could come from its namesake mustelid, if we were to attempt to create Wolverine in the lab, we must first turn to the ocean:

Healing ability:

Sea Cucumbers are the champions of organ regrowth. All animals possess some kind of tissue repair mechanism, however the sea cucumber belongs to a group of animals that can regrow lost limbs - salamandas and some starfish also have this ability. The repair process involves cells called morula cells, which move to the point of injury. Although all animals have wound repair processes, not all can regenerate lost body parts. With the sea cucumber, the same processes that repair its injuries also repair limbs and internal organs, and this opens up the possibility that we could one day discover how to repair our own wounds and perhaps how to regenerate body parts. But as Dr Boob says, we are quite some way off from instant healing ability: "The odd bullet to the head won't be able to be dealt with."

Retractable Claws:

There is a remarkable analogue found in nature for Wolverine's retractable claws. University of Harvard biologists have determined that some African frogs have the ability to puncture their own skin with sharp bones in their toes. These bones then act as claws to attack predators. The defence mechanism was discovered by David C. Blackburn, James Hanken, and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. Blackburn said, "It's surprising enough to find a frog with claws. The fact that those claws work by cutting through the skin of the frogs' feet is even more astonishing. These are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality."

Blackburn discovered the frog and its defences when he was conducting fieldwork in Cameroon and one frog he was studying scratched him. He found 11 frog species in the genera Astylosternus, Trichobatracus and Scotobleps who had this peculiar ability. Read more at Project Frog.

Smell, sight, hearing

Whilst there are obvious candidates in nature that have heightened sight, smell and hearing abilities, recent studies suggest that human and dog olfactory receptor genes evolved from a common mammalian ancestor, and as such Dr Boob thinks that mimicking the smelling ability of dogs could be quite "easy." Dogs have an olfactory sense approximately a hundred thousand to a million times more acute than a human's. Scenthounds can smell one- to ten-million times more acutely than a human, and Bloodhounds, ten- to one-hundred-million times more.

To hear more on the science of Wolverine, tune in here (or press play below):

Part 2 of this series on the science of Wolverine will be aired over the next few weeks. The song A Russian Peter was used in the background of this podcast, with permission from Ioda Promonet. Buy the full London Philharmonic Orchestra Peter and the Wolf CD, or download individual songs as mp3s, from Amazon here.

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