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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

Captain America’s Super-Soldier Serum: 1940s Fantasy Meets Modern Biotechnology

Evening Program

Friday, June 16, 2017 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1A0021

Marvel’s Avengers come in many shapes and sizes, but what makes them Earth’s mightiest heroes are their powers that lie well outside the human norm. They draw their super-abilities from a variety of sources: they may have superior training and discipline (Black Widow and Hawkeye); use technology that sets them apart from the pack (Iron Man and Ant-Man); are born an alien god (Thor, obviously); or may be regular folks modified in a biological way (Captain America and The Hulk). 

But how exactly did Professor Erskine transform puny and frail Steve Rogers into Captain America? According to the story, a combination of a chemical compound and “vita rays” created our favorite shield-slinger, but the secrets of the Super-Soldier Serum died with the professor in 1941. Could modern science provide an alternative formula to explain the transformation? Eric Spana, an assistant professor of the practice of biology at Duke University, explains how current biotechnology could produce a Super Soldier (in a purely hypothetical case, of course). In the process, he surveys some of the most amazing achievements of biological science: retroviral integration, CRISPR genome manipulation, protein engineering, and optogenetics.

Spana, who has explored the science behind Harry Potter and the wizarding gene for Smithsonian Associates, regularly uses science fiction and fantasy culture in his courses at Duke to teach the tenets of genetics, genomics, and developmental and molecular biology.  

No biotechnology background is necessary, and the program’s scientific content is appropriate for students 13 and older.

NOTE: $15 student rate available (with valid ID). Please login with a special promo code or call 202-633-3030 during our standard business hours to access this price.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)