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Did the X-Men have a reason to evolve? Mutant DNA might not be so random

Wolverine didn't happen by accident.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Genetic mutation GETTY

Wolverine, Storm and the rest of the X-Men seem to have emerged randomly after genetic mutations went paranormal, but they might have come out of the womb like that for a reason.

There is no organism on Earth that can flash metal claws or start hurricanes out of nowhere, but mutant things still exist out there. While they aren’t always so obvious, their DNA may have warped for survival. Really successful mutations can factor into the evolution of life-forms that are better able to tough it out wherever they live, which is why there are monster worms that live at the bottom of the ocean and beetles crawling around volcanoes.

Mutations are not so random, as researcher Detlef Weigel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany, and his colleagues from MPI and UC Davis found out. What may seem like genetic aberrations actually tend to occur in ways that benefit the organism (no superpowers necessary). Some regions of a genome can also mutate more than others depending on what is needed. Weigel recently led a study published in Nature.

“That there’d be regions of lower and higher mutation rates wasn’t so surprising, but rather that essential genes are strongly skewed towards regions with lower mutation rates,” he told SYFY WIRE. “We assume that this is because mutations in essential genes are more likely to be deleterious for the organism.”

While it might sound like something to happen to a doomed hero in a comic book, damaged DNA creates mutant genes if it is not repaired. It only seems grim. While some mutations from broken DNA can cause diseases like cancer, others are capable of boosting an organism's potential to survive. Weigel and his team studied the flowering weed Arabidopsis thaliana to see how mutations arose and whether or not the initial mutations were as random as they had been predicted to be. As opposed to previous thinking, there was definitely a pattern there.

Because essential genes are the most biologically necessary, finding that they were the least likely to experience mutations meant that part of the work of natural selection was already done, though natural selection will still affect any mutations that do occur in those genes. This isn’t mandatory for an organism to evolve — but it reveals that the process of evolution is much more complex than anyone thought. DNA entwines itself with proteins. Whether or not that DNA can mutate was found to depend on what protein it would wrap itself around.

“Depending on what type of protein the DNA is wrapped around, it will emit stronger or weaker signals to the cell to send in DNA repair machinery whenever there is a problem,” said Weigel. “You could figure out whether there are environmental conditions that enhance the pattern, so that the most important genes mutate less.”

What would have even Darwin opening his eyes is one way A. thaliana ensures its own survival: evolving to protect its genes from detrimental mutations. This phenomenon complicates the idea of evolution being caused by natural selection. If anything, it makes natural selection easier because it has proven the organisms most likely to make it are those without mutations to their essential genes, so it is as if they have already been pre-selected. Future cancer treatments could rely on knowing why more mutations happen in some regions of the genome.

Another use for this discovery would be helping plant breeders create the ultimate crops. Seeing patterns means that they will be able to discern which genes they are most likely to find mutations in, select lineages that will either have no mutations or some that may be beneficial, and rule lineages out if potential mutations would mean disaster. Most groups they would want to get rid of would be easy to identify because they would have twisted essential genes. Then they could decide what else they would want to factor in for the plants to thrive.

“The pattern would tell breeders where the most promising places to look for beneficial mutations might be,” Weigel said.

Superhero mutations only live in the realm of fantasy, but at least they explain why Mystique can shapeshift.