The Science of Spider-Man’s Origin
Spider-Man was one of my favorite childhood superheroes. I loved the wall-crawler’s wit and banter, I loved the stories and the drama; it all made for a great comic series. But, the thing I loved most about Spider-Man was his powers. Super agility and strength, the ability to stick to any surface, and having a kind of pre-cognizance he calls his ‘spider sense’ makes him a formidable super-power in the Marvel Universe. And how did he get these unbelievably useful and uncanny powers, you ask? Well, naturally, a radioactive spider bit him, and that bite drastically transformed his body and his mind. What? It could happen, couldn’t it?
“My spider-sense is tingling. It’s telling me that there is more to this than radioactivity and mutation.”
A spider’s bite sends a virus into his cells, his bloodstream, and all of his bodily fluids, and that virus reconstructs his genetic code so that can become half man, and half spider (yeah, he doesn’t look all that spidery). Ok, how about this: the radioactive substance transforms him. No, no… that doesn’t explain the spider sense (actually, it doesn’t explain anything). By JJJ’s moustache, we shall get to the bottom of this!!!!
Let us focus this topic of discussion on Spider-Man’s origin, rather than the powers themselves. If we can prove that it is feasible to introduce spider genes into the human body in a favorable way, then perhaps we can take it a step further and discuss the powers themselves.
Before tackling this debate we must re-create the circumstances involved. During a school trip, young and nerdy Peter Parker was visiting a research lab where their main focus of study regarded radioactivity, and exposing radioactive rays to certain atoms and particles. Somehow, and without the knowledge of any of the observing scientists, a spider slipped into one of the radioactive particle streams, and became irradiated. After surviving the exposure to the radiation, the spider left the lab room, crawled all the way up to Peter Parker’s hand, and bit him. A short time later Peter realized that he had somehow changed — that he could scale walls and leap great distances. He had become much stronger than before, and he seemed to be aware of danger just before it happened. Amazing! Right, Amazing Spider-Man? Well, it’s been a good, long while since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko thought up the origin (over half a decade now), and in this day and age our fantasy needs to be somewhat believable. So let’s get down to business and see if science can either prove or disprove the plausibility of Peter’s little arachnid mutation.
The Spider Gets Zapped!
Can I just begin with the spider? Pleeeease? I just want to rant a little on something that really isn’t all that important to the cause. Okay, thank you…
How did the spider get in there in the first place? You got yourself a heavy-duty radioactive ray gun that you use for experimentation, and that means you should also have high-level security installed in your fortress-like facility. I suppose that after you’ve spent all of that money protecting your experiment, you might have shirked on a cleaning crew… you know, one that might clean up the cobwebs, and prevent insect infestations? Maybe you spent all your money on the radioactive ray gun itself, and all you could afford was a shoddy, almost condemned building in Buffalo, New York to practice your mad experiments. Fine, so a spider found its way through the cracks, and got into the laboratory…
The spider webs its way down, straight into the path of a radioactive particle stream, because it is a stupid spider that doesn’t have a spider-sense of its own to tell it to get the eff away from the deadly, pulsating beam of energy. Let’s assume that the radiation was low enough that it wouldn’t kill the spider, and that it was even low enough not to give the tiny little arachnid radiation poisoning. Now it has ample time to go out for dinner, and unlike humans who are exposed to radiation, spiders don’t want to throw up, they instead want to go for a bite! The radiation is coursing through every cell of the spider’s body now, and the foreign energy is transforming its genetic code to produce a cell-altering substance in its venom. Or maybe the radiation mutated its antibodies to become some kind of new breeding virus/bacteria that infects and takes over the spider’s prey’s genes.
I’m already getting lost in my own ridiculous theories!
What does radiation normally do to humans? It makes them sick; it creates tumorous cells (mutated cells are created due to bad DNA coding, or the cells themselves contain deformed inner bodies). Irradiating cells can cause all kinds of problems, and unless an experiment is finely controlled for all contingencies and variables, most of the time we don’t get the results we expect. In sum, it is really hard to tell exactly what will happen to our cells and DNA when they are exposed to different kinds of radiation, and when did you ever hear of something positive coming out of radiation exposure?
Let us say that this irradiated spider’s venom has changed in such a way that it now has the power to inject spider DNA into key spots of another species’ DNA, because that is what Spider-Man’s origin is implying…
So the spider bites Peter, sending its irradiated venom into his system (not the radiation itself — the radiation isn’t a substance, it is energy that came from the experimental particle beam). This is what happens next: the human defense system would sense a foreign body and set off an immune response to protect the body. Now the foreign spider venom must either trick Parker’s immune system into thinking that it is a natural resident of his body, or it must overpower Parker’s immune system. Thus, the spider’s venom must be extremely toxic (and that would probably do more bad for Parker than good), or maybe it behaves like a mutating virus, or an immunodeficiency-type virus.
A war begins in Parker’s body to fight for domination. The virus-like substance has two behaviors: Firstly, it must be able to replicate itself in order to affect all of Peter’s DNA. Secondly, it must be able to implant new, spider DNA into carefully selected places within Peter’s DNA for him to be affected in a positive way without suffering any of the negative, often cancerous effects of mutation. Oops! Here comes DNAse, the enzyme that breaks apart DNA into its lesser components; let’s get this enzyme to help us splice our spider-code into the human-code instead of letting it break us apart too!
That’s right: the radiation of the ray gun changed the spider’s venom DNA so that it could have the capacity to evade the human immune system, replicate, search out its victim’s entire genetic code for key areas where it might implant not one new genetic sequence, but several sequences that code for a whack of new mutations (giving Parker multiple powers). Let us not forget that this virus-like chemical reaction ceases to exist after Parker is completely transformed. It has a ‘due date’ so to speak, as to when the entire reaction must be completed by, or Parker would get stronger all the time; he would become faster and have a better intuition with time, until his powers become so strong that his body can’t handle them any longer.
So, this is a case of recreating meiosis: the new DNA is implanted into his old DNA in some kind of genetic splicing reaction. Can that even be done in the real world? In my last analysis I looked at Superman’s invulnerability, and I discussed the experimentations of Nexus. They had successfully introduced silk-spider DNA into goat DNA. The result: The milk of those goats had the capacity to be spun into silk. That’s cool, but it’s completely different than what we are talking about here. In the spider-goat experiments, they spliced the DNA and then impregnated the parent goats with it. It was the offspring of those goats that had the spider DNA in them. We are talking about Meiosis here, not the mitosis of already venom-infected cells — that comes later. According to the Nexus experiments, if we wanted to create our very own Spider-Man, we would need to properly splice human genes with spider genes in a lab, and then initiate meiosis (that is, create an altered clone within the laboratory).
I think that science can explain the fact that Peter’s appearance was unaltered after the change. Simply put, any spider DNA that codes for appearance was not included in the attacking viral strands.
But wait… didn’t he develop tiny suction cups (or talons in Rami’s movies) on his fingers that allow him to climb walls? Okay, so there are a few physical alterations.
Did you know that you can take almost any cell in the body, and it will contain your entire DNA? That’s right, liver cell DNA contains the same encoding information as the skin cell DNA, and the heart cell DNA, and the brain cell DNA. There is even a blueprint DNA that tells your cells to differentiate, and grow into different organs such as your liver, skin, or heart when you are growing in your mommy’s belly. Still, every cell in your body must contain all of the blueprints. So this spider-virus… it would have to affect ALL of Peter’s DNA in the exact same way, or unaffected DNA might replicate through mitosis and he would eventually revert back into the human-only Peter Parker. Either the virus affected 100% of his cells, or there are parts of him that aren’t part-spider. I suppose that that really isn’t much of an issue. Perhaps only the necessary cells were affected. Maybe he doesn’t have spider-hair, or spider-genitalia. Maybe he only has spider-muscles, and spider-suction cups, and that is good enough for him to be sensational, or amazing, or spectacular, or the web of.
As for the spider-sense… I’ve never heard of any documented evidence to suggest that spiders have any precognitive abilities. Wait, have I ever seen documented evidence of human precognitive abilities? Nope. I think, then, that we shall leave the spider-sense alone for today.
No, no, no… You can’t expose a spider to radiation in such a way that it will transform its venom to produce a virus-like substance, and then have it walk around and biting people. The virus can’t just attack 100% of another species cells in such a way that it will boost all of the subject’s abilities, and give it new properties for the better, and then have the virus stop working after a prescribed amount of time… and all of this was an unplanned fluke of nature that would happen in only one in one billion-kajillion-flebbegillion scenarios. So folks, please don’t go around irradiating things and hoping that they bite you. Ooh, ooh… can I become Gecko-Man, or maybe Humming-Birdman, or how about Wombat-Man?
 That isn’t entirely true either — not to contradict myself. Having the radioactive spider bite origin in the first place indicates that a somewhat believable story needed to be in place back then too (in the 1960’s). And, give us a mythology; tell us that magic exists, or that there is a thing called adamantium that is stronger than any known substance, and we’ll believe it, because there is no reason to refute it. But, back to the topic at hand…
 Even tanning is a form of radiation exposure that can have terrible side effects, and chemotherapy (though it helps to kill the cancer that dwells in our bodies) kills or mutates our cells.
 Meiosis is the creation of two cells from two separate pieces of DNA in one cell (mommy + daddy = you). Mitosis is what occurs regularly in your body, where one cell divides into two daughter cells.