2012 saw the original Avengers movie release, three years later we were treated with Avengers: Age of Ultron, and later this month we will finally see the third installment of the franchise; Avengers: Infinity War.
Another Avengers movie means another world-shattering conflict, and another appearance of everyone’s quick-witted Romeo, Tony Stark. Strangely, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, has not been the focus of fans in the run-up to the movie’s premiere. Hawkeye has become the most talked about character from the fans’ perspective.
Clint Barton’s alter ego Hawkeye has been completely excluded from all marketing materials for the blockbuster, but the Russo brothers, directors of the movie, have assured fans that Hawkeye will feature in the movie. Apparently, he’s on a solo mission that keeps him separated from the rest of the crew.
We’re in the business of genomic engineering, so we will happily leave the theories to movie buffs (though we’re totally on board with Clint Barton being not only Hawkeye, but Ronin too!). What we really want to know is whether Hawkeye’s talents could be seen in humans one day.
Although fictional, Hawkeye is technically a human, meaning he doesn’t have alien or mutant superpowers like Thor or The Incredible Hulk. He’s no normal human though; Hawkeye is a master assassin at the peak of human conditioning. He is a former special agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he worked under the supervision of Phil Coulson. Hawkeye’s superior eyesight and impeccable hand-eye coordination mean he is capable of wielding archery bows with unerring accuracy. In Hawkeye’s own words, he “just can’t seem to miss.”
Enhanced Vision – An Advantageous Genetic Mutation?
Hawkeye’s accuracy with a bow and arrow is heavily dependent on his eyesight, which is clearly more advanced than the average human’s. As far as we know, his genome has not been intentionally altered, leading us to believe that Hawkeye has inherited his extraordinary eyesight from his parents. This theory is strengthened by the fact in the Marvel comic books, Barney Barton, Clint’s brother, is also an accomplished archer thanks to his enhanced vision.
Creating Hawkeye with CRISPR
Perhaps Hawkeye’s advanced eyesight is the result of thousands of years of genetic evolution in the form of adaptation, genetic drift, or mutation of his ancestor’s DNA. That’s not great news if we want to see more humans with his talent in our lifetimes, so we have a few ideas on which genes may need to be modified using CRISPR technology to improve vision:@Avengers Assemble! Could #CRISPR Be Used to Create (and Find) Hawkeye? #InfinityWar Click To Tweet
Plan #1: Targeting Specific Opsin Genes OPN1SW, OPN1MW, and OPN1LW
These genes are behind the production of for blue-, green-, and red-photoreceptor cones in his foveae (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye). These cones cause the production of blue-, green-, and red-sensitive opsin proteins that mediate the conversion of a photon of light into an electrochemical signal, which is the first step in a cascade of biochemical processes that enable us to see color.
Barton’s nickname “Hawkeye” suggests his visual acuity is physiologically similar to birds of prey. The human eye is thought to contain 125,000 cones/mm2. In comparison, an eagle can have up to 1,000,000 cones/mm2, so if we can use CRISPR to increase expression of OPN1SW, OPN1MW, and OPN1LW genes to match those of birds of prey, it’s possible that we could start to see the world in super-HD.
Plan #2: Targeting Opsin Regulators OTX2, NR2E2, and CRX
Targeting specific genes such as OPN1SW, OPN1MW, and OPN1LW can be tricky, so the next best thing is to target the transcription factors that regulate them. OTX2, NR2E2, and CRX are transcription factors that control the expression of the opsin genes in humans. Birds of prey have different transcription factors regulating their orthologous versions of opsin genes, which is likely one of the main reasons for their larger density of cones, relative to humans. Instead of waiting for human transcription factors to mutate over generations to those closer to birds of prey, we could use CRISPR to replace the human transcription factors (OTX2, NR2E2, and CRX) with those from birds of prey with the aim of replicating the photoreceptor cell density of Hawkeye. This is a process known as transgenesis. A similar approach was used in the past to modify goats to produce spider silk in their milk.
Although making superhero mutants using CRISPR might be a bit far-fetched, modifying humans to develop super senses like Hawkeye’s vision doesn’t sound like it’s entirely impossible! Ethical discussions aside, if you could modify your genes to improve any aspect of your physiology, what would you change?
We’re pretty sure Hawkeye’s vision will come pretty high up the list for a lot of people. However, for Synthego’s very own Trevor Longbottom would much rather focus on curing his dairy allergy so he can finally eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup. I guess superpowers are all a matter of perspective.
Subscribe to Synthego’s CRISPRevolution Blog!
Join your fellow scientists. Get our latest CRISPR articles delivered straight to your inbox. Enter your email address below: