Yvonne Carts-Powell

Genes tailor proteins to their location

In Uncategorized on November 21, 2008 at 12:52 pm

tRNA by Adam Coster
Ha! Gotta love Adam Coster‘s cheesy biology joke about tRNA!

But, to get back to (not-really) more serious matters: the basis of the superpowers on Heroes is that Our Heroes (and Villains) have something unusual — and distinctive — going on with their DNA. And since what DNA does is provide the recipe for producing proteins (as well as lots more information like when to produce it, how much to produce, when to stop, etc.), there must be some sort of proteins in our superpowered characters that is different from us regular-powered folks. But even if we put aside the problem of how producing different proteins can allow an individual to fly, I have also wondered how the characters with such a wide variety of powers — which presumably all come from the production of different proteins — can share genetic characteristics that allowed Papa Suresh to identify them.

One possibility: they’re all producing variants on normal proteins.

A recent paper in the journal Nature shows that one gene doesn’t just code for one protein: “it is possible for one gene to produce slightly different forms of the same protein by skipping or including certain sequences from the messenger RNA. Now, an MIT team has shown that this phenomenon, known as alternative splicing, is both far more prevalent and varies more between tissues than was previously believed.”

Maybe the basis of superpowers isn’t in specific genes? Maybe it’s something that tells genes to produce unusual variants of their proteins?

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  1. I’ve just started watching Heroes (and I’m mightily confused, since the earliest episode on hulu is in season 3).. but one of the things I noticed in that episode was frequent references to God.

    If we accept that as a premise of the world in which heroes live, then there are other possibilities for the sources of power. A very small percent of human DNA seems to actually *do* anything. What is the rest for? Perhaps angels have DNA, Papa Suresh found a way to activate portions of our DNA that we generally don’t use as mortals.

    How is the ability to create memories different than the ability to appear to someone in a dream? Functionally if you give someone the memory of a dream you’ve for all practically purposes appeared to them in their dreams.

    Is creating a vortex more or less the same as dematerialization? (Air, once dematerialized, can no longer push on material air, hence has no air pressure, and the surrounding air would rush into that area. But then wouldn’t one have to continue to focus on a vortex to keep it going?)

    I hope this all doesn’t sound too weird… I’ll have to watch some more episodes so I understand it better.

  2. Hey Michael, welcome!

    Oh dear. Season 3 is a tough place to start, if you want to understand what’s going on. I don’t see Season 1 episodes anywhere online, but the Heroes wiki has quick recaps of the seasons and of individual episodes.

    But back to your comment about the references to God.
    If I understand correctly what you are saying, then I agree: if God interacts with the world of Heroes, then yes, God can be a source of infinite and omnipotent power that is causing miracles by endowing select humans with (literally) supernatural powers.

    That doesn’t really help this discussion, though, because if that’s true, then the framework of science (which presupposes that the universe is self-consistent) is the wrong frame for investigating the superpowers on the show.

    I want to science-geek about the world of Heroes, so I resist that idea. But there are twp other reasons why I think that God is not an active participant in the show’s events. First, although the show doesn’t tackle religion directly it is very concerned with the moral and ethical decisions that our characters make. And the characters, like anyone else, consult their religious and spiritual beliefs to make those decisions. My second reason has more to do with crafting a story: using religious terms allows the writers to create stronger, more resonant imagery. It is a sort of poetry that leans on so many of the Heroes viewers being familiar with the King James Bible.

  3. Oops, I didn’t finish responding:
    How is the ability to create memories different than the ability to appear to someone in a dream?

    That is an excellent, excellent question!

    I don’t know enough about states of consciousness to answer it, though. Let me check with some more psych-oriented folks.

  4. Thanks for the tip on where to find episode synopses. I will take a look.

    I think I understand what you’re saying about not wanting to hand wave over the source of these powers. But is it fair game to take the visible effects, no matter the cause, and track scientifically from there?

    Here’s what I mean… in the episode I watched (3:5 or 3:6), one of the characters created a vortex in a hallway. Various things flew about. No matter the cause of the vortex, the various things flying about ought to obey the laws of physics.

    For example, what strength wind does it take to hold a person up more or less sideways while they hang on? (The back of my envelope says about 150 mph, but I could be off… and note that this is way more than the wind required to knock someone over, since the wind is hitting the cross section of the body from the top, the front.)

    How quickly does that force diminish with distance? (The wind speed should drop as the square of the distance, and since wind force is proportional to the square of the wind speed, the force should drop proportionally to the 4th power of the distance. Which illustrates that it would be possible to create a vortex that sucks in something close to it while leaving things a bit farther away untouched.)

    Although having said all that maybe I should read the book so I know more what you mean by the phrase “The Science of Heroes.” 🙂

  5. is it fair game to take the visible effects, no matter the cause, and track scientifically from there?

    Absolutely!

    Your vortex example is fantastic. (And would you like to write a guest-entry in the blog about that?)

    This is the game: watch a fictional show that was clearly designed not to be realistic, then find a spot where we can start applying realism (ie, science) and work out mechanisms and consequences from there.

    Which spot we choose depends on what science we know. The show has gotten me to research and learn a lot of biology and psychology (and revisit some engineering) that I never even wondered about, before.

    I hope that the book will inspire other people to wonder, and to learn, and to enjoy science.

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