In the world of Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto, mutants are feared and shunned.
“In our world, mutants are Olympic athletes and brilliant musicians and everyday people like you and me,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Chris Sansam, Ph.D. “They’re actually so common that someone without any mutations would be the real anomaly.”
To understand mutants, it’s important to know a little about genetics, he said. Almost every cell of the human body has a nucleus containing thousands of genes. Genes are grouped into structures called chromosomes, and humans have 23 identical pairs in each cell. Add up all those chromosomes and you get deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.
DNA is made up of sugar, phosphate and four kinds chemical bases — adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. Add up all those genes and you have a lot of DNA. In fact, there are about 3 billion base pairs in a single set of human DNA.
“The order of those four chemicals is what makes us individuals,” Sansam said. “Their sequence in genes determines things like hair color, height, susceptibility to certain diseases and so much more. Why do children look like their parents? It’s in the genes.”
So what are mutations? Mutations are permanent changes to the DNA, whether in a single base pair or an entire chromosome. Different changes have different consequences, just as different X-Men have different powers.
“We inherit mutations from our parents and they happen throughout our lives,” he said. “Every time a cell divides to make a new cell, your DNA is copied. If the DNA has been altered, that change is passed on to every cell made from that line.”