The Genetics of the Super Saiyan
If you haven’t heard of the multimedia franchise of Dragon Ball, then you are either extremely young or living under a rock. Dragon Ball along with Sailor Moon was one of the anime that put Japanese animation on the map in the United States and around the world. For many older millennials, it was one of their gateway series into the wide and wonderful world of anime. While I’m not a huge Dragon Ball fan, I still have fond memories of college when my roommate and I would tape Dragon Ball during its afternoon airing on the old Toonnami block so we could watch it after dinner. Dragon Ball was huge then and it only grew to encompass manga, anime TV series, anime movies, OVAs, video games, and even a live action adaptation, although the less said about that the better.
The original Dragon Ball was the brain child of Akira Toriyama, and was first published from 1984 to 1995. The manga was then adapted into an anime (1986 to 1989, 153 episodes), which was later continued in a direct sequel known at Dragon Ball Z. Dragon Ball Z first aired in Japan from 1989 to 1996, 291 episodes, before it to was given a direct continuation by the name of Dragon Ball GT. By all rights, Dragon Ball GT did not live up to its predecessors and aired from 1996 to 1997, 64 episodes.
There were numerous movies and OVA’s released during and after this time, but the story is, for all intents and purposes, that the Dragon Ball franchise was lying dormant until 2009, when a revised and remastered version of Dragon Ball Z was aired as Dragon Ball Kai, which lasted until 2015, a run of 159 episodes, compared to 291 for the original Z. This leads us to Dragon Ball Super, which began airing in 2015, and it is a completely new storyline, the first since the Dragon Ball GT ended. However, Super picks up where Z ended, completely tossing out the GT storyline. The series currently stands at 69 episodes, with no sign of stopping anytime soon. Anyway, time for the science.
“Um, Mr. Anime Science, what the heck is epigenetics?”
Before we answer that, let’s take a minute for a quick review. Genetics is the science of how an organism’s genes are passed down from one generation to the next. This is the science that allows you to predict the possibility of a particular gene in the offspring if you know the parents’ genes, the dreaded Punnett’s square. Why are genes so important? Well, in layman’s terms you can consider them the instruction manual for the organism, which determines the traits that will be seen in the offspring. So, by knowing an organism’s genetics you can determine the traits that the organism will have.
The organism’s genes are written in deoxyribonucleic acid, otherwise known as DNA. The easiest way to think of it is like this. The genetic code, or the entire biological instruction manual that determines the organism’s characteristics, is like a book. The individual genes that determine one characteristic is a chapter in the book. The letters that the book is written with is the DNA. Now a characteristic is something identifiable about the organism, say for example, hair color. A trait is which type of hair color you have, so chapter 3 of the genetic code is hair color, while chapter 3 version A is blond hair, and chapter 3 version B is red hair, for example. So, by knowing the genes of the parents we can use genetics to predict the chances of a particular version of a gene’s being passed onto the child.
Now we have to go back to the previous lesson and evolution. Darwin’s theory of evolution stated that organisms would slowly change overtime adapting to their environment; but if offspring inherit the traits of the parents, then how would the child’s survival be any better or worse than its parent? The answer to that is that each time an organism reproduces, it first creates a copy of its DNA that it contributes to the resulting offspring. DNA is rather good at copying itself, but it’s not perfect, making 1 mistake in every 1 billion base pairs or letters copied. Considering that the human genetic map is 3 billion base pairs, that’s 3 mistakes every time it copies itself. These mistakes can cause a particular trait to improve, get worse, or not change at all. What the parents do during their life time really has nothing to with which traits the offspring inherits.
Remember the previous lesson where I described Lamarkian evolution and how his theory was incorrect? Well, it turns out that Lamark wasn’t entirely wrong. Going back to our book analogy for genetics and DNA, there is a set sequence of when, where, and how many times different chapters are read or not read or read at all. This DNA regulation is controlled by sequences of DNA in the genes themselves or by substances attached to the DNA; using the book analogy, I would call them book marks.
Epigenetics is the study of non-DNA-based influences on genetics, and how these influences may or may not be heritable. In essence, it boils down to how does the environment affect our DNA and can these effects be passed down to our children. So Lamark was somewhat right that things an organism does during its life time can be passed down to its offspring. The field of epigenetics is rather young, and while the term was first thrown around in the 1940’s, it didn’t come to refer to its current use describing environmental influences on non-DNA-based gene regulation until the 1990’s, with a formal definition being agreed on in 2008. Now what does all of this have to do with Dragon Ball?
The Saiyans in the Dragon Ball universe are a humanoid alien species endowed with extreme strength, vitality, a tail, the ability to turn into a giant ape, and a rare super mode known as super Saiyan. It is this super Saiyan mode that I will be focusing on today. The term super Saiyan doesn’t appear until the Namek arc where Vegeta mentions an ancestral Saiyan with power far beyond the current big bad Frieza. This super mode is dismissed as a myth until Goku in a fit of rage enters it and finally defeats Frieza. We later find Vegeta has also attained the legendary super mode in the next arc along with Trunks, his child from the future. As the story progresses, Gohan also enters the super Saiyan mode and a level beyond what Goku, Trunks, and Vegeta can attain, labeled super Saiyan 2.
How is it that a young child can surpass full grown adults that have been training all of their lives? To understand we have to go back to the human alien romance lesson for the idea of hybridization, specifically hybrid vigor, where the offspring of two different organisms is stronger than the parents. Now we can assume that at best humans and Saiyans are two different subspecies of humanity and as such can still interbreed and have fertile offspring, or are two very closely related species that can reproduce and have fertile offspring. We know the offspring are fertile because of Gohan’s daughter Pan. In either case the human-Saiyan hybrid Gohan is much stronger than his parents and this is seen many times over the show where many characters comment on his strength. (How he got shafted in later seasons notwithstanding).
The epigenetics comes into play when considering Goten and young Trunks, who can go super at will, and did not face the same sort of trials that the others had before entering the super Saiyan mode. How is it that Gohan struggled to gain super Saiyan while Goten did not? This is where epigenetics comes into play. The extreme events that cause an individual to become a super Saiyan and the stress that being a super Saiyn puts on the individual’s body can cause changes to how various genes are regulated. Given the amount of time it takes for the first transformation to complete, genes that were previously dormant need to be turned on and other genes turned off. Now what would cause these changes in gene expression? Extreme emotional states that precede the onset of the super Saiyan state is the most likely culprit. So, it would be the extreme training to prepare the body to handle the strain, combined with the emotional stress, that activates the super mode. Having activated the mode, once the control of the genes regulating the super Saiyan state are altered, allows for easier and easier access to the super mode. These changes in gene regulation can be passed down to their children as previously stated.
This would be the case for Goten and Trunks, who were both born after their fathers gained the ability to turn into a super Saiyan. These non-DNA-based regulator changes to Saiyan DNA, allowing for the super Saiyan transformation, would be present and active in Goten and Trunks. The result of this is that they would have a much easier time transforming into the altered state and their bodies would be stronger in their base state because of having to support the extra power it grants. There is also the added benefit of Saiyans having the emotional range of a toaster, and their half-human kids having a much wider range of emotions, which seems to be a requirement of becoming a super Saiyan, making their transformations much easier.
While the Saiyans are purely fictional, there is evidence of such things happening in the real world. A famine struck the Netherlands during the winter of 1944-1945, a combination of a German blockade of food supplies and a harsh winter. Predictably, children born during this time were smaller than average, but scientists managed to track these children, and their children were also smaller than average despite having normal food supplies. There was also an increase in the rate of schizophrenia in the children born during the famine. A second study was done in the small isolated Swedish community of Överkalix. The study found that fathers who began smoking early had sons who were larger than average at nine years of age. There was no effect on daughters. If the grandparents underwent famine conditions, their grandchildren ended up having a lower risk of heart disease when compared to individuals whose grandparents did not go through a famine. The final example involves an inherited genetic mutation that causes different conditions depending on whether it is the father or the mother passing the defect to the child. If the father passes the gene to the child, the result is Prader Willi Syndrome; in the case of the mother passing the gene, the result is Angelman’s syndrome.
Fictional super powered aliens and half aliens aside, it is actually possible for Saiyans to pass down their super mode to their dependents, even Pan, who manages this while still growing inside her mother’s body.
Just one thing to keep in mind is that while the environment can influence our genetics scientists have determined this effect to still be quite limited overall. Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments section below.