Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ep 132: Science of Superheroes - The Hulk

The science of superheroes is taking a green and nasty turn this week as we discuss the largest superhero of them all, The Hulk. Join myself and our regular superhero expert Dr Boob as we delve into the science of how we might realise The Hulk in the lab. It was one of the more entertaining interviews I have done for the podcast.

Listen in to this show here (or press play below), and read further for more info:

The Hulk is alter-ego of Dr Bruce Banner, who allegedly bares a striking resemblance to Dr Boob. Banner is a reserved physicist who involuntarily transforms into The Hulk when triggered by a strong emotion such as anger, fear, terror or grief. The Hulk himself is a massive green monster who gets stronger the angrier he gets. He also has bullet-proof skin.

The Hulk’s origin story includes depends on whether we are looking at the comic book Hulk, the Hulk of the two recent movies, or The Incredible Hulk of the TV series (in which it is David Banner, not Bruce Banner, who metamorphoses into The Hulk).

The 2003 movie version "Hulk" includes many of the topics we discuss in the podcast. The movie starts with genetics researcher David Banner – Bruce Banner’s father - working with the military to "improve" human DNA. The opening credit sequence depicts experiments with jellyfish and starfish DNA, and Banner’s notepad mentions bioluminescence. This suggests that the Hulk gets his green colour from jellyfish DNA as some jellyfish bioluminesce at around 450 nm, which is at the blue/green end of the spectrum. In 1961, Osamu Shimomura extracted green fluorescent protein and another bioluminescent protein, called aequorin, from Aequorea victoria while studying bioluminescence. He eventually received the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2008 for this work. The mention of starfish is also interesting because, as we found with Wolverine, starfish and sea cucumbers have great healing powers and are able to regenerate lost limbs. Evidently, Banner wanted to splice bioluminescence and improved healing into human DNA.

Banner’s experiments then moved to lizards and monkeys, but unfortunately they all died. Naturally, he then decided if his experiments did not work on animals, he would try them on himself – clearly, ethics committees are not part of superhero science. After conducting experiments on his own DNA, he eventually passes on his mutant DNA to his unborn son Bruce. Once David realises this, he changes his approach and works to cure his son of his genetic afflictions, however the research is shut down and an explosion kills David’s wife. David is taken to a lunatic asylum and Bruce is adopted.

Years later, Bruce has followed his father’s line of work and is conducting military research – Bruce’s area of interest is the use of nanomeds in soldiers. This might include such things as targeted drug delivery for rapid recovery from injury. An experimental accident subjects Bruce to an enormous dose of gamma radiation which “activates” his mutant DNA (possibly combining with the nanomeds) and the building rage/stress transforms him into The Hulk for the first time.

Whether or not this is scientifically possible – well, that’s the topic of the podcast so tune in!

Other issues that we discuss include:
  • Gamma radiation and radiation poisoning;
  • Genetic transfer and gene therapy – could David Banner change his own DNA in such a way that this change would be copied to his progeny? For more information, check out the Weismann Barrier;
  • The Hulk’s size – is it possible to rapidly increase your size? Simple conservation of mass equations would suggest no, and bacteria in a Petri dish generally have a 24 hour doubling time. There are also enormous metabolic requirements involved – we need to have resources available to feed these growing cells and Bruce Banner is not excessively fat. Perhaps to do this we need to accelerate Bruce Banner to the near the speed of light, at which point he may relativistically pick up some mass - however, this is not particularly practical!
  • The Hulk’s strength – is it possible to rapidly increase your strength?
  • The Hulk's healing properties - could we use some of the science of Wolverine here?
  • The materials used to create bullet-proof skin. The toughest skins in the animal kingdom are crocodile, elephant, shark and armadillo; however none are bullet (and knife) proof;
  • What materials could we use to make his "one-size-fits-all" pants? You will notice that no matter what size Bruce Banner or The Hulk are, and no matter what the ripped state of his other clothes, his undies always fit.
  • And of course, whether The Hulk has irritable bowel syndrome and wears giant green snuggies.
    Hope you enjoy this show - we certainly enjoyed recording it, as you will be able to tell by the end! Listen in to this show here (or press play below):

    NB: I've now discovered there's a Red Hulk - future show perhaps?
    Samples in this podcast are broadcast courtesy of ioda PROMONET. They were:

    The Toxic Avenger
    "Superheros 2007" 
    from "Superheroes" 
    Buy at iTunes
    from "Little Baby Souls"
    Buy at iTunes
    Candye Kane
    from "Superhero"  
    Buy at iTunes
    Ninja Kodou
    "Superhero (Psychedelic Man)"
    from "Ninjutsu"  
    Buy at iTunes

    Shimomura, O., Johnson, F., & Saiga, Y. (1962). Extraction, Purification and Properties of Aequorin, a Bioluminescent Protein from the Luminous Hydromedusan,Aequorea Journal of Cellular and Comparative Physiology, 59 (3), 223-239 DOI: 10.1002/jcp.1030590302

    Moghimi, S. (2005). Nanomedicine: current status and future prospects The FASEB Journal, 19 (3), 311-330 DOI: 10.1096/fj.04-2747rev

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