'Luke Cage' Just Brought CRISPR Tech Into the Marvel Universe

Between Luke Cage’s bulletproof skin and his super strong muscles, it’s always been obvious that Harlem’s hero was subjected to some scientific alteration. Historically, that scientific process had been canonized as the application of Super Soldier Serum, the Marvel universe’s explanation for Captain America and plenty of other mid-life mutant transition. But that’s not true any longer. The new Cage show on Netflix makes it explicit that Dr. Noah Burstein made Carl Lucas into Luke Cage using the very real gene editing technique known as CRISPR and some abalone DNA.

“We used a process called CRISPR to fuse the subject’s DNA with another DNA to gain its attributes,” says Burstein, previously portrayed as the son of Nazi scientists, by way of explaining how Cage’s superhuman abilities arose.

In theory, CRISPR could actually do that: The technique uses short strings of genetic code — Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, to be precise — to target very specific locations on a string of DNA, which it cuts out with the help of a scissor-like enzyme called CAS9. In the gap, scientists can insert DNA from just about anything. Whether doing so will produce any viable proteins, however, depends on a host of factors, including, of course, species compatibility.

In other words, Burstein’s method makes sense, but it seems doubtful that a superhero could be made from a shellfish. If he was mining the human genome, Burstein would have been better off inserting the genetic mutation from the disease CIPA, which renders humans unable to feel pain. But none of this is too crazy when you consider that the genes that make it possible for spiders to create bulletproof silk proteins have been inserted in goats, which in turn produced milk containing silk that was later spun into a bulletproof fabric.

Yes, Spidergoat is real.

Could Burstein have figured out how to use CRISPR to express these bullet-dodging proteins in Cage’s skin? Maybe — after all, CRISPR’s incredible potential means it could, hypothetically, have been used to create sci-fi characters from Wookies to Tauntauns. If it is possible, however, real-life scientists haven’t figured out how to do it — at least not yet.

Scientists have, however, successfully used CRISPR to create extra-muscular dogs, tiny spotted pigs, and hypoallergenic peanuts — once-impossible feats that are very likely to reward CRISPR’s developer, MIT’s Feng Zhang, Ph.D., with a Nobel Prize this week.

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