Mutants Among Us - Biology Week


By Mark Falanga

Wim Hof surrounded by ice before setting a world record. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In September of 1963, The X-Men debuted, introducing the world to a band of mutated humans that possessed uncanny powers because of their genetic abnormalities. These powers included, flight, super strength, telekinesis, control over ice, and even shooting lasers out of their eyes. The series spawned a movie franchise, which has five entries to date and has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide.

While this series is very popular, the idea that humans can manifest these great powers through a genetic mutation still seems like a fantasy. In reality, there are people who are born with beneficial mutations that help them perform superhuman feats. No, they’re not bulletproof, nor do they have x-ray vision, but their conditions make them mutants nonetheless.

The first well documented case of a beneficial genetic mutation occurred in 1964, when Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta, competed in the 1964 Winter Olympic Games. His endurance in cross-country skiing was very impressive and he won two gold medals and a silver at the games.  However, when the Olympic committee tested his blood, they found that it had over 20 percent more red blood cells than his fellow skiers (other sources reported this number between 20 and 50 percent), which allowed more oxygen rich blood cells to flow to his muscles, helping him to ski faster, longer. Assumedly the easiest way to achieve this is by blood doping, a claim which Mäntyranta denied.

As it turns out, he was telling the truth. Thirty years later, a study found that in five generations of the skier’s family, 50 of his ilk including Eero possessed a genetic mutation on their EPOR gene, which is what was spurring the red blood cell production.

Speaking of winter, there’s another man who would have excelled in these frosty conditions. Wim Hof, from the Netherlands, is known as the Iceman. While he can’t shoot snow from his extremities like his comic book counterpart, he can survive in freezing weather wearing only a pair of shorts. In fact, he is in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest time swimming underneath ice water in the Arctic Circle. Contrary to the last cited source (damn you, ABC News! -ed.), Hof met his match when a 2007 attempt to climb Mt. Everest wearing only shorts and shoes left him frostbitten. Still pretty impressive considering how many have died trying to climb the world’s tallest mountain who were far better equipped and clothed.

Scientists everywhere are baffled by this and continue to do routine tests on him. In 2008, Hof attempted to break another world record for longest time being nearly naked submerged in ice.  The process was closely monitored by Dr. Ken Kamler, who charted Hof’s condition as he stepped into a tank with ice up to his neck. The results were incredible; after one hour and 12 minutes, Hof stepped out of the tank suffering no frostbite, in fact, his skin was still pink! He claims this is due to severe conditioning and mental toughness that allows him to withstand the cold, an explanation the scientific community seems to accept.  In 2011, a study at Radboud University found that Hof’s concentration may be part of a mutation, but more research is still needed.

Genetic mutations can be apparent even in newborn babies. In 2000, a baby born in Berlin, Germany was found to have larger than average muscles. By age 5, the baby could hold 7 pound weights with his arms extended, which some adults have difficulty doing. The baby was carefully studied and found that he had an extremely rare mutation on two genes that caused his body to block myostatin, a protein that stops muscle growth. By having this protein blocked, his muscles are in a constant state of growth by doing simple exercises, instead of the heavy lifting that it would take for normal person. This condition is so rare that only one other documented adult has this mutation…his mother. Not surprisingly, she was a professional sprinter in her youth. As for her son, with his genetic mutation, it’s fair to say there’s a good chance we’ll see him in future Olympic Games for Germany.

So the next time someone tells you they have an amazing skill that they can’t explain, don’t just assume they’ve been practicing. There’s no reason to be scared, just as the founder of the X-Men, Charles Xavier, believes that mutants and humans can peacefully coexist.