Old Man Logan and the Tale of the Telomere

E. Paul Zehr E. Paul Zehr
March 3rd, 2017

I'm a neuroscientist, author, and martial artist. Comic books got me into martial arts, martial arts got me into science. In my day job my research helps to improve function and empower people with stroke and spinal cord injury. I want to empower everyone with knowledge so I also write about science and superheroes. My first 3 books are "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero", "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine", and "Project Superhero". My 4th book, "Creating Captain America" will be out in 2018. I live in Victoria, BC, Canada, where I work at the University of Victoria and teach martial arts.

“Wolverine’s mutation…He has uncharted regenerative capabilities, enabling him to heal rapidly…” Dr. Jean Grey to Cyclops and Professor Charles Xavier in the Marvel movie “X-Men” (2000)

Logan. Wolverine. X-Man with an attitude. Attitude is definitely a part of Wolverine’s DNA. His mutant DNA gives him his abilities but also should keep him from aging. So what’s the deal with Old Man Logan?

Wolverine, in addition to attitude in spades, has amazing characteristics, powers and abilities all due to his mutant genes. Chief among those are Wolverine’s amazing adamantium claws, but no less important is his mutant healing ability. It’s this ability that truly allows Wolverine, as he himself says in “The Uncanny X-Men” #162 in 1982, to say “I'm the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn't very nice.”

Len Wein, John Romita Sr., and Herb Trimpe created, designed, and drew Wolverine in his full comic book debut in “The Incredible Hulk” #181 in November of 1974. Of course, a character like Wolverine also has multiple origins told by others. Wolverine is shown as James Howlett living in mid-1880s Alberta, Canada and then moves to a mining town in northern British Columbia and goes by Logan in the 2009 graphic novel “Wolverine: Origin” written by Paul Jenkins.

Logan enters the Canadian army in time for World War I, eventually winds up in Japan and in World War II does several missions with Captain America as a kind of mercenary for hire. Logan serves in an elite Canadian paramilitary unit, then makes his way to the CIA and finally “Team X”. Personally, I like the juxtaposition of the arrogant, angry, aggressive, beer and whiskey swilling, cussing Canadian Logan alongside the nice, soft-spoken stereotype of Canadians. Now that I write this, it’s kind of interesting that Wolverine and Deadpool—Canadians both—have a mouthy mean streak a mile wide combined with mutant healing factor.

And it’s that healing factor that I want to focus on here. It’s so powerful that in the movies and comic books Wolverine almost comes out as indestructible, like Superman, but without the S. Except a real difference is that Wolverine does get hurt and injured—sometimes severely. Even when the healing factor is put to major test—as in X-Men: The Last Stand when Wolverine defeats Dark Phoenix—Logan’s healing happens so rapidly injuries just put him on the sideline briefly and he looks good as new.

So, how does he actually age, then? Biological aging (or senescence) is a continual and steady process that basically starts as soon as life begins. You and I both aged while I wrote this sentence that you are now reading. We tend to think of the effects of aging more as affecting our abilities, our functions. Our species homo sapiens—and we can assume something similar for our mutant X-Men cousins—begin to really show these effects after about the 3rd decade of life. Unless we have a mutant healing factor like Logan.

When you age, many processes are ongoing in your body. They all have to do with the basic operation of the cells in your body—a number that stays pretty constant because you are constantly producing more cells through cell division (mitosis). Throughout life there is a pretty even balance between the two processes of death and division.

This balance makes a lot of sense. If you had uncontrolled death or growth of cells you would have pathology. For example, cancerous tumors are an example of too much growth with not enough cell death. But how long does a cell actually live? Possibly forever if it can heal and repair itself constantly, something real cells don’t manage.

After some time cells lose the ability to divide and die. It’s been thought that the normal processes in cells gradually lead to accumulated damage that stops division. For example, damage to the strands of DNA occurs and the cells fail to flourish or actually die via self-destruction. This “apoptosis” really is a form of programmed “deliberate” cell death.

DNA is coiled together in the helical strands we can find on display on t-shirts everywhere. And those coiled DNA strands have ends on them, ends that need to be carefully organized. The idea is that the telomeres need to stay nicely put together. If they were to fray, contact with other DNA strands could occur leading to deterioration within the cell. The telomeres work kind of like the plastic bits at the end of your shoelaces—they keep the material from fraying.

When that plastic comes off your shoelace (as it always does eventually, let’s be honest) you get frayed ends of your laces. Those ends cannot be easily tied or even put through the lace eyelets anymore. In a conceptually similar way, frayed DNA (or really, shortened telomere length) is an outcome of certain diseases and also occurs in aging. Maintaining an optimum telomere length is therefore very important. Those telomeres are sensitive to radiation damage, as shown in folks involved in clean up of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster for example.

Lots of scientists think it’s important too, which is why the discovery of the enzyme that maintains telomere length—cleverly called telomerase—won the Nobel Prize in 2009. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak won the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine related to their “discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.” If this activity could be enhanced—like we image it is for healing factors in Marvel mutants like Wolverine, Deadpool, and more recently Captain America—it could interfere with the aging process that comes from cellular death.

Leonard Hayflick showed back in the 1960s that animal cells have a limited capacity to reproduce. Instead of having the ability to replicate indefinitely like we see in Wolverine’s regenerative healing capacity, the “Hayflick Limit” for a cell is ~50 times. Senescence as applied to cells means the loss of the ability to divide and the ultimate result of this process is death. Even for mutants.

Part of the Weapon X project that gave birth to Wolverine, might have included alteration in mechanisms that regulate metabolism and cellular growth. A key regulator is “rapamyocin” also known as “mTOR”—terms that sound like they were comic book chemicals created by Stan Lee himself. Rapamyocin is named for the antifungal found in soil samples taken from the island of Rapa Nui and has immunosuppressive and antitumour effects. It’s also been shown to extend lifespans in yeast, worms, fruitflies, and mice and is approved for use as a treatment for numerous cancers.

In Wolverine’s case we can assume he has a pretty “Jacked up” version of DNA telomerase and circulating healing factors including mTOR that are constantly rejuvenating his cellular protein function. So, his skin would look younger and we should still see Wolverine with black hair. Sorry Hugh Jackman, but strictly according to X-Men-mutant-healing-factor-science, Logan should still look and be younger than he is shown to be. For me, though, I’ll take Canadian Old Man Logan—all of his quirks included—any day.

© E. Paul Zehr (2017)


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