Regeneration—Science vs Wolverine
March 2017 | With the pending premiere of Logan, America’s favorite super-healer, Wolverine is about to close out a 17-year tenure on the silver screen. Allegedly, that is.
But as one cinematic regenerator sees his time in the limelight fade, another is there to take the torch. Deadpool swept audiences away in 2016 and doesn’t look like the character is losing steam anytime soon.
And this is no coincidence. Audiences have a pull towards characters like this; no not the rogue slice ’em and dice ’em anti-hero, but the regenerator. Unlike other superhuman powers, the healing factor plays a special role in our relationship with pop-science-fiction. It’s a phenomenon that’s been a long time coming, too.
The quickest evidence I can bring to the table surfaced during my research for this article, and beyond this one example there are dozens of blogs, headlines, and news stories that echo the sentiment: Is limb regeneration science fiction? Maybe not. It’s not often that the worlds of medicine and and superheroism mesh together so intensely, and it’s for that reason that unlike most other super-abilities that jump off the comic pages, regeneration deserves a closer look.
We’ve all felt it, in some respect. We’ve had cuts and scrapes that have vanished over the course of days — and innate to our understanding of the human anatomy, this is still an impressive feat of biology. Consider this amongst the field of other superpowers that flood comics and screens — weather manipulation, laser beams, super speed, invulnerability. The list is largely comprised of abilities that bend the laws of physics beyond what we’re able to comprehend. Super strength is another outlier, alongside regeneration, that we can all imagine based on our everyday humdrum biology — but we don’t see articles touting the ability of new medicines to increase strength beyond Olympic levels. Regeneration, though… again it stands alone. If you’re a sucker for science news, you may be convinced that super-healing pills loaded with stem cells are just a few decades from our pharmacy shelves.
You’ve been misled, but just slightly.
Our medical advances (real, amazing breakthroughs in healing potential) feed into a media story that in turn fuels a superheroic, fictional narrative. It’s a cycle that we’ve seen spin out of control in the last 17 years, and it’s a phenomenon we haven’t seen the likes of before.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Regeneration did not start with Hugh Jackman in the year 2000. It’s roots in superhero fiction go much deeper. Like many tropes we see in comics and action movies today, the origins (to the best I can track down) of regeneration lie in the Golden Age of science fiction literature, commonly recognized between 1938 and 1946. My earliest finding dates to 1939 in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Synthetic Men of Mars, where limbs and heads were regrown in laboratories:
“Here heads were growing new bodies and headless bodies new heads. Hormads which had lost arms or legs were growing new ones. Sometimes these activities went amiss, when nothing but a single leg sprouted from the neck of a severed head.”
From there, dozens (if not hundreds) of iterations flooded the literature scene through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1963 one of the most famous regenerators ever — Doctor Who — hit the small screen, and eventually in 1974 we saw the first version of Wolverine on comic-store shelves.
But while we can track down a tentative sci-fi timeline, it’s entirely worth noting that all this talk of “regeneration” is boldly lacking of consistency. Some of these earliest mechanisms were isolated to experiments in the labs of mad-scientists; others (like the good Doctor) describe an individual that takes on a new body after death. What we see in Wolverine — the ability to regenerate living tissue anywhere, anytime — is harder to pinpoint in history.
The real science, however, is much easier to trace. The concept of regeneration for certain tissue (the kind that heals naturally in humans) was studied long before the modern medical era; beginning in the 1920s and 1930s though, certain biologists began looking at the extreme limits of regeneration in the animal kingdom. A famous study published in 1925 squeezed sea sponges “through a piece of gauze” before observing the dissociated cells regenerate into new, complete organisms. In 1938 the records begin showing experimentation on amphibians, which are able (more so than most other vertebrates) to regenerate full limbs while young, and in 1944 another famous study began testing how to initiate such regrowth in adult frogs using skin grafts.
Such a shocker that the real-life science and the adaptation into science fiction evolved side by side. (Hint: that happens all the time).
As this science continued to expand, the answers soon fell into place around a 1981 breakthrough in the isolation of stem cells. To briefly summarize a few decades of research into a short paragraph: stem cells are found in embryos of all animals and, unlike the normal cells that live in your body, are unspecified. This means that they’re not “pre-coded” to be part of a toe or hair or intestine…when they grow up they can be anything. The research that spawned in the 1980s tested how to isolate and, possibly, activate the growth potential as a healing agent in adult humans.
In even more recent breakthroughs, the secret potential of embryonic stem cells has been understood even further. Their growth potential lies in a specific gene that, while present in unspecified embryonic cells, has become deactivated in adult cells. Amphibians like newts, or simpler organisms like sea sponges, don’t see the same deactivation that occurs in adult humans. The closest we’ve come so far to understanding regeneration is in the “turning on” of this gene in cells that don’t normally possess this unspecified growth potential.
But no matter how cool our science-induced regeneration will become, we need to qualify with a big BIG caveat: in no case, now or forever in the future, will regeneration go quickly. Despite all my research, the fastest case of regeneration of animal tissue I was able find was 4.4 millimeters a day. That’s an amazing feat of biology but…it’s no Wolverine.
And that’s where the science fiction side of regeneration becomes hazy. The limits of the healing factors we see in the comics or movies is very rarely defined, let alone given any limitations. Hell, Wolverine has grown back entire limbs within hours — nay minutes — and has even respawned an entire body within moments.
But this article was never meant to disprove the accuracy of comic-book regeneration. Let’s get back on track.
Regeneration science is real, it’s revolutionary, and deep down it connects with a primal electricity that we humans feel every time our real-life biology borders on the extreme or unpredictable. Science communicators may be at slight fault when blog headlines read “Newts Regenerate Whole Limbs!” without the sad qualifier “…over the course of a few weeks,” but who can blame them? This slight misdirect has inspired some of the most fascinating superpowers known to literature — and all the while when we see Wolverine’s skin seal up over a bullet-wound, we’re caught thinking: “That’s not entirely impossible. Science works that way, after all.”
This miscommunication isn’t bad, it’s just a fact of life.
But all the while, it’s iffy what this says about our connection to the science. The momentum that drives forward science, media, and popular culture is in a touchy balance — too much shifting in any one direction and the public may set expectations beyond what biology can deliver, which could lead to a unfounded mistrust in science and medicine overall.
Still, I trust our resilience. What’s more likely is that, in time, after decades more of biology headlines claiming new (but minute) breakthroughs in regeneration, the “superpower” may start to feel lame and dated because science tries to leverage it at every turn. Biologists need to market their research, believe it or not. They need a hook, and what we’ve seen in the last few decades is a great starting point for conversations around stem cells and regenerative capabilities. The benefits have been twofold, but not without risk.
Nobody is foolish enough to think the lines between laboratory research and Deadpool will soon become blurred, but it’s an association we’ve been peddling subconsciously or not for years. We’re seeing a similar trend in the engineering field as well — super-suits, jetpacks, unassisted flight, they’re all “within grasp” of the breakthroughs we hear monthly coming from top engineers. Right?
So scientists and writers: recognizing and capitalizing on the relationships between biology and sci-fi can have great effects, for better or worse. It can be the gateway to better communication, better storytelling, and a greater public understanding of science, but remember…
With great power comes great responsibility.
Or something like that.