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imgresWhen you hear the word “mutant,” what comes to mind? Something negative, off, or scary, right? Something that has gone awry from a biological standpoint, that is different from the rest of us or what is considered “normal.” And since a mutation creates a mutant, mutation doesn’t conjure up good feelings either.

Years ago, I had a roommate who had celiac disease, where she couldn’t eat anything with gluten in it. I asked her the origin of this disease and she told me it was genetic. I referred to the allelic change that gave her celiac as a “mutation.” She said no, it’s just a variant, a different version. A variant and a mutation are the same thing, of course. But for her, coming from a non-genetics background, the word “mutation” had a negative connotation and she didn’t like my calling it that. And this isn’t surprising. “Mutation” sounds like something gone wrong genetically, and “mutant” sounds like the freak that results. And science fiction is littered with these “freaks.”


Comic Books

Mutants have been used in comic books for decades. Marvel has an entire series of them, known as X-Men. These X-Men mutants possess an “X-gene” that allows the mutant to naturally develop superhuman powers and abilities. I haven’t read the comics, but in the movies the X-Men live in secret, away from the normal humans who are scared of them and are inclined to exploit, abuse, murder, or otherwise treat them in an inhumane fashion.  Although far lesser known than Marvel’s mutants, DC Comics also has mutants, differentiating them from “metahumans” because they are born with their powers, rather than acquiring them.

In other comics and science fiction stories, mutants are biologically (and often genetically) altered, often due to exposure to something caustic (radiation, a virus) that changed them. Sometimes the changes make them powerful in a good way, other times they make them evil and dangerous.

In The Refugee, “mutant” is a slur for a Korvali. The Korvali are extremely tall and rather odd, but are no “freakier” than the other aliens in this world, other than the fact that they’re generally disliked. More likely, the origin of this insult is the fact that the Korvali are famed geneticists who are quite adept at genetic engineering (and this includes their own genomes).


What a Mutant ACTUALLY Is

Here are a few definitions of mutant:

  • In biology and especially genetics, a mutant is an organism or a new genetic character arising or resulting from an instance of mutation, which is a base-pair sequence change within the DNA of a gene or chromosome of an organism. (Wikipedia)
  • Of, relating to, or produced by mutation (Merriam-Webster)

And for mutation:

  • In genetics, a mutation is a change of the nucleotide sequence of the genome of an organism, virus, or extrachromosomal genetic element. Mutations result from unrepaired damage to DNA or to RNA genomes (typically caused by radiation or chemical mutagens), errors in the process of replication, or from the insertion or deletion of segments of DNA by mobile genetic elements. Mutations may or may not produce discernible changes in the observable characteristics (phenotype) of an organism. Mutations play a part in both normal and abnormal biological processes including: evolution, cancer, and the development of the immune system. (Wikipedia)
  • A significant and basic alteration or a relatively permanent change in hereditary material involving either a physical change in chromosome relations or a biochemical change in the codons that make up genes. (Merriam-Webster)

In other words, a mutation is a change in the DNA nucleotide sequence. Some changes have no effect on the organism at all. Others do, particular if they alter a resulting protein product. If a protein product is altered, often (not always) the effect is detrimental. DNA has repair mechanisms just for this: if a nucleotide is changed, the repairer can go in and change it back. Larger sections of DNA can be mutated (changed) as well.

As non-lethal mutations occur in a species’ gene pool, this can increase genetic variation. The favorable changes make for healthy organisms that go on to pass those “good genes” on to progeny, whereas unfavorable mutations will not often survive long enough to reproduce and thus get winnowed out of the gene pool. So, in other words, mutations are key to evolution and survival of living things.  


Other Resources

Christie’s science fiction books

Christie’s science article archive

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