Have researchers unlocked the genetics of superhero powers? Geneticists working at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Switzerland, have discovered a gene treatment that can turn regular mice into "mighty mice" capable of running at speeds twice as fast as normal, reports New Scientist.
The gene therapy not only allows mice to run faster, it also gives them increased endurance. Researchers hope the discovery will lead to new treatments that improve the mobility of the elderly and reinvigorate people with muscle disorders, though they recognize that it could also be exploited by cheats looking to improve their athletic performance.
The therapy works by knocking out the gene that makes a protein called nuclear receptor corepressor 1, or NCoR1, which is present in the muscles of mice. NCoR1 essentially acts as an off switch, or regulator, for the mitochondria in cells. By knocking the gene out, the mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of a cell, continue to work at full speed without stopping. The result is a superpowered mouse.
Better yet, the enhancements don't appear to come at a cost. Treated mice gained muscle mass but they didn't require any extra food to keep them going.
"Effectively, the mice go further, faster, on the same amount of gas," said Johan Auwerx, one of the treatment's lead developers. "The treated mice ran an average of 1,600 meters in two hours, compared with 800 meters for untreated mice."
Additionally, researchers found that by knocking the same gene out of fat cells instead of muscle cells, they were able to create mice that could put on more weight without ever developing type-2 diabetes. They believe a similar therapy could be developed to help obese people prevent the disease.
Of course, any therapy that improves athletic performance brings with it the potential for abuse (i.e., for every superhero there's usually a supervillain). Athletes should be advised, though, that they could risk their health by trying to manipulate their NCoR1 proteins. The treatment has not gone through any human trials yet, and it could have serious side effects in other parts of the body where NCoR1 serves other functions. Also, NCoR1 is important for fetal development, and every baby known to be born without the protein has died.
"We only know what happens if it's knocked out either in fat or muscle, and it could have serious side effects on other organs," said Auwerx.
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