Vsauce, I’m Jake and I’ve been thinking a lot about mutation, not just because of
X-Men Apocalypse coming out but because I am a mutant...well at least part of me is.
Cancer is a mutation of a cell, specifically the DNA inside the cell is damaged. That cell
doesn’t stop dividing and growing and growing, faster and faster until we get a lump of cancer
cells like this, a tumor, my tumor. Unfortunately it didn’t lead to me having any enhanced
special abilities like mutations do in the world of X-Men. But that didn’t stop me
from trying, I had to go to 8 weeks of radiation therapy, and if I’ve learned anything from
comics, that exposure to radiation should have at least given me some sort of physically
mutated power. It didn’t; but what I did find interesting is that we use radiation
to cure cancer, yet radiation can also cause it.
Non-Ionizing radiation like infrared, microwave or radio waves don’t cause tissue damage
but ionizing radiation: gamma rays, x-rays and ultraviolet light can and when it does,
it damages DNA. Sometimes the damage is repaired and nothing changes. Other times the damage
is not repaired and the damaged cell dies. Occasionally, the damage is not repaired but
the cell lives on with mutated DNA. The aim of radiation therapy is to expose just the
affected area to so much radiation, about 10,000 times the normal amount, that it kills
Since you started watching this video you’ve had at least 7 instances of DNA damage and
by the end of the day you’ll have had over 10,000. The good news is that your cells usually
fixes it, if the cell just doesn’t die first. But mutations happen all the time. A human
has an average of 60 at birth and a lot of them developed over centuries: For example,
originally we all had brown eyes. Six to ten thousand years ago, a genetic mutation caused
one person to have blue eyes. And they’re the one common ancestor for everyone with
blue eyes today. The truth is we are all mutants, however some are more mutant than others.
Timothy Dreyer has incredibly dense bones due to a disease called Sclerosteosis. Because
of a specific mutation in the sclerostin gene, Timothy and around 100 other people have such
thick bones that out of 60 patients surveyed, none had ever broken one despite living normal
active lives, and one had even been hit by a car.
Then you have someone like Michel Lotito, who we’ve talked about before, that was
able to eat things like 18 bikes, 15 shopping carts, 7 televisions and 1 Cessna airplane.
This was because of two things: one a disease he had called Pica where you have the urge
to eat inedible objects and because of a mutation his stomach lining was twice as thick as an
But let’s talk about pain, eating something like a bicycle would probably hurt going down
even if broken into small pieces. And that’s where the mutation CIP comes in: Congenital
insensitivity to pain.
As the name suggests, it is a condition where the person can not feel physical pain. There
is a fantastic New York Times article about a girl named Ashlyn Blocker who has CIP and
it chronicles how she and her family live with it. They talk about how Ashlyn dropped
a spoon into a pot of boiling water and then she stuck her hand in to retrieve it. She
didn’t feel anything but just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it won’t
cause permanent damage. For example take Steven Pete who discusses how his parents discovered
he had it: Let’s imagine something, let’s imagine we can’t feel pain. I’m sure it
is a fantasy that most of us have had before but think about what it would actually be like.
Steven Pete has done so much damage to his left leg without knowing, that he can’t
walk properly anymore. Or what if you had an internal injury? How would you ever know?
Timothy Dreyer might never break a bone because of sclerosteosis, but the increased pressure
on the skull could cause instantaneous death.
And there are plenty of other mutations that on the surface might seem like a superpower,
like having incredible height similar to the almost 9ft tall Robert Wadlow, or the mutation
that causes Ehlers–Danlos syndrome which gives your skin hyperelasticity. But all of
these come with a trade off. In Robert Wadlow’s case, his circulatory system couldn’t sustain
his ever increasing height and he died when he was 22.
But there is some good that comes from these mutations: by looking at the genetics of people
with sclerosteosis, doctors are trying to create a drug that increases bone growth to
help patients that have osteoporosis - where their bones become brittle and fragile. And
with CIP, researchers are trying to figure out a way to use this mutation as a painkiller.
I think Steven Pete says it best
And we tend to say that someone is a superhero or that someone is special because they can
run faster, jump higher or swim longer than an average person. But then you have people
like Steven Pete, or Timothy Dreyer, or the people I saw every today at the cancer center,
who have such incredible strength, the fact that they continue to push and continue to
live even with such immense odds, the fact that they hope that what they face, what they
live with, might help others, is incredible, is super. To take the analogy one step further,
these people with the help of doctors, are using their super power to help defeat villains
like osteoporosis or chronic pain.
In pop culture we call mutants super heroes. And I think in real life, these people are
no different. And as always, thanks for watching.