Once upon a time, superheroes inevitably gained their superpowers from radiation, the latest and most mysterious-yet-powerful fad of the 50s and 60s.
Technology Marches On, however, and gene splicing has replaced atom smashing as the most glamorous sciencey stuff: nowadays, many modern remakes of classic superheroes go with Genetic Engineering. Be it a bite from a genetically engineered spider, or exposure to it in a freak accident, genetically engineered origins are the Phlebotinum for the 21st century. Rarely are the effects of "genetic engineering" anything like those portrayed in adventure fiction — however, it's a buzzword that everyone knows, and that the average public knows just enough about for it to seem powerful, without any inconvenient actual education getting in the road of the Phlebotinum at work.
God only knows what superheroes will be getting their powers from twenty years from now - nanotechnology, perhaps? (It's certainly very fashionable in Cyber Punk these days.) Quantum mechanics is another good excuse - anything can happen because of quantum.
Genetic Engineering also lends itself to being weaponized to do exactly the same thing as those ultracool nukes that kill people but leave buildings standing. Now that nuclear apocalypse is substantially less likely (or at least less likely to wipe us all out), and Chemical/Biological weapons just aren't destructive enough in terms of human life, Genetic Weapons make a nice scary (and vague) alternative.
It's also interesting to note the other favourite sources of weirdness used by SF writers before the advent of nuclear physics.
The Super Soldiers in Lyrical Nanoha. Artifical Mages are genetically engineered so they will be born with full combat mage capabilities. Combat Cyborgs are genetically engineered so they can be given cybernetic implants without their bodies rejecting the foreign object.
Euphorics in Speed Grapher gain super powers based on their fetishes after being carriers to a virus that is activated by contact with Kagura's bodily fluid.
Guilty Crown gives us the Void Genome, a genetic weapon that allows whosoever it's been implanted in the power to draw weapons known as Voids from anyone seventeen years of age or younger. These weapons can be BFSs that can slice clean through Humongous Mecha or ribbons of light than can repair anything (including a completely decimated bridge.) Yes, it is a genetic weapon. And it winds up being implanted in an Ordinary High School Studentat the end of episode one.
In the second season of Birdy the MightyDecode, it's revealed that there exist spawning sacs left over from the days of The Empire which produce beings called Ixiora, which seem to be based on the Human Alien Altan race. They possess extremely superior strength, durability, and, depending on the type of individual, various other incredible abilities. Whatever their original purpose was, the Federation government uses them for combat in a variety of capacities. Birdy herself is an Ixiora.
The Shaman's Tears comic introduced Bar Sinister (who later got their own short-lived series), a group of genetically engineered, super powered human/animal hybrids.
In Sonic the Hedgehog, it ends up the entire planet of Funny Animals is the result of the alien species called the Xorda dropping a "gene bomb" on the planet, mutating it severely. Yes, the origin story for the heroes homeworld is that Earth was bombarded by genetic engineering weapons that caused fault lines to shift, seas to drain, and left the planet uninhabitable in many places for many years. Which is what you'd expect to happen if a planet got hit by several thousand multi-megaton nuclear weapons. In other words, in the Sonic universe genetic engineering is the new nuke.
Knuckles the Echidna's origin has a combination of this and I Love Nuclear Power in the Archie ComicsSonic the Hedgehog comics; his father, Locke, did genetic and radiation experiments on himself, then irradiated his son's egg with Chaos Energy from the Master Emerald.
Taken to pretty literal extremes in Daredevil, where the government's secret genetic experiment is named Nuke, to give an indication that, yeah, he was as deadly as a walking megaton bomb.
The Ultimate Universe takes this trope all the way, with genetic engineering being compared to nuclear weapons in other ways, such as international supersoldier escalation & treaties being proposed to curb it. Several Spider-Man rogues (as well as Spidey himself) were re-imagined to be the subjects of secret, illegal super soldier experiments, and other superheroes and villains were designed by secret government projects for the same end. Ultimatum reveals that this includes mutants. Ultimate Marvel has even applied this trope to people who weren't even ostensibly super to begin with in regular Marvel. Ultimate Iron Man's super genius is explained as the result of genetic experiments his parents were involved in (which resulted in his mother's tragic death) that resulted in him being born with braincells throughout his entire body. Unfortunately, due to a defect in the process it also gave him cancer and constant, agonizing pain.
To quote Nick Fury: "The next war will be a genetic one."
Mark Millar's big finale to the Ultimate Avengers took this to the logical extreme: with the team racing to stop radicalized countries like North Korea from getting their own superhumans.
The X-Men have always been mutants, but interestingly, the earliest issues of the X-Men comics refer to them as "children of the atom" and say that Xavier is a mutant because of radiation his parents were exposed to before he was born. Current X-Men comics have abandoned the nuclear angle in favor of pure genetics, but all mutants are the end result of genetic engineering- by godlike aliens called the Celestials tens of thousands of years ago.
The Celestials also created two other races by experimenting on humans- the ugly, shape-shifting Deviants, and their enemies, the Physical GodCanon Sue race the Eternals, which after a bit of space-travel and civil war ended up founding a colony on Saturn's moon Titan, which eventually spawned Thanos, who conducted further genetic experiments on himself to make himself stronger. The Celestials split other alien races into Deviants and Eternals as well- the Skrulls are a race of Deviants who conquered their entire planet and built an interstellar empire.
About the time the Celestials showed up on Marvel Earth, the Elder Gods had a similar idea and started making their own species, though these were engineered magically- Set created the Serpent Men, whilst Oshtur and Chthon created numerous good and evil races, respectively, with Chthon going out of his way to corrupt and re-engineer some of Oshtur's (or attempting to, with varying levels of success).
A lot of improbable origins, including many of the 'radiation is magic' type, have been retconned as Celestial experiments resulting in people who would gain powers from things that would kill most people. Before this, it was often theorized by fans that maybe these people were mutants with a 'get powers instead of cancer from radiation/toxic waste' power, or latent mutations triggered by the Freak Lab Accident; this seems to say Sure, Why Not? without making everybody an X-Man. DC Comics has a "metagene" explanation that's similar. The Inhumans are a result of Kree experiments exploiting humanities' potential for superhuman abilities.
Similar to the above, Spider-Man's origins have moved from being bit by a radioactive spider in the original to being bit by a genetically enhanced "super spider" in Spectacular, Ultimate, and both the original movie and the the reboot. 90's Spider-Man show actually went half way, being bit by a spider that was hit by "neogenic" radiation. The mainstream comics eventually decided to hint that his powers might actually be magic, which to be fair makes more sense than radiation.
Also the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria made from G-Cells that ironically is used to stop Godzilla. Still other nations see it as a huge threat that could upset the balance of power since it could render nuclear weapons redundant despite Japan making it clear they only wanna use it on Godzilla. In fact several contraries try to steal it and one agent is sent to kill the only man who knows how to make it.
Is he strong? Listen here/He's genetically engineered.
Applied to the Ultimate Spider-Man incarnation. Ultimate Nick Fury can even often be found reciting the trope.
The Ang Lee Hulk movie. Bruce gets his power from a combination of genetic engineering, pharmaceutical drug testing, nanomachines, and radiation. It seems the scriptwriters just figured that one of those was bound to work. The new one fixed it to being genetic engineering jumped started with radiation.
In the 2008 movie Bruce's research was specifically to recreate the super soldier serum, playing this trope as straight as possible since the original comic origin has Bruce developing a nuclear bomb using gamma radiation for the military.
Any modern remake of a long-lived superhero is doing this.
In the original Planet of the Apes movies the apes simply "evolved" greater intelligence. In the remakes, they're genetically engineered.
Also, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it appears mankind will be wiped out by the genetically-engineered virus which gives the apes intelligence instead of the nuclear war from the original.
The Island Of Doctor Moreau is a prime example: In the 1896 science fiction novel by H. G. Wells, Moreau transforms animals on his island into Petting Zoo People called the Beast Folk and gives them intelligence, by a gruesome prolonged surgical vivisection process that is left deliberately vague, because the author wanted among other things to make a point against animal vivisection, common during his time, so the "how" wasn't the point of the novel. In the 1996 movie remake, set in 2010 and starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, however, Moreau uses genetic engineering to create transgenic human/animal hybrids, some of whom look almost perfectly human, while others are humanoid but covered in fur and have snouts, hooves, horns, fangs and claws; without regular injections of Moreau's serum, however, these creatures lose their intelligence and slowly regress to their animal forms.
The Meliorare Society in Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth series was a group of rogue genetic engineers who attempted to "improve" humanity by tinkering with the DNA of unborn children, hoping to create physical and mental superhumans. Naturally, things didn't go as planned, and after some of their more grotesque results came to light, they were outlawed and eventually hunted down. Their "experiments" were mainly destroyed or, where possible, surgically altered to remove their abnormalities. The fate of the few who are left over is a major plot point of the series, forming the origin story of Flinx as well as Mahnami.
Maximum Ride- Max and her friends are all bird-human hybrids, complete with wings. The laboratory that created them specializes in animal-human hybrids. In the sister books, (When the Wind Blows and The Lake House) Max is even more bird-like, even to the point of laying eggs and aging faster.
Quick cloning. With Spaarti cylinders, humans could be safely grown in as little as a year without ysalamiri, and as little as a month with them. While they grew they received flash training, so it was possible to get an army in as little as two months. The Hand Of Thrawn duology has a clone who had a bit of Thrawn mixed into his learning matrix in the hopes of making a leader with Thrawn's ability and long-range thinking. In Galaxy Of Fear there is a cloning method that works in hours, but the results are too unstable to be particularly useful.
In the X-Wing Series, Evir Derricote created and tailored the Krytos Plague, a very nasty disease with several variants, each targeting a different related group of nonhumans. The Quarren strain spreading to Mon Calamari, the Bothan strain also devastating Wookiees, and so on. He was ordered to make it something that mutated very quickly to infect as many species as possible, but also to be sure that it didn't infect humans, and while he succeeded on both counts that high rate of mutation also meant that once it was released it became less lethal.
Used in the Whitney A. Curtis novel Legacy of Cryptia, in which it turns out that genetically engineered superwarriors doubled as living batteries for the weapons that devastated Wellia with all the force of nukes.
Sergey Lukyanenko's Genome novel is all about how genetic engineering results in Designer Babies that are specialized and conditioned to love their "chosen" profession. This ranges from simple mental modifications (e.g. police detectives have a hightened sense of logic and love for truth and law and are unable to form emotional attachments; High Class Call Girls easily falling in love with their clients and cannot fall out of love until the client reciprocates) to physical ones (e.g. starship pilots have a well-developed cerebellum for balance and can shrug off a 30-foot fall; fighters can move in the blink of an eye and have extra arm joints; power plant specialists have radiation-proof skin and hair with the males able to "suck in" their genitals).
The Hunger Games have several weaponized creatures scattered around both the titular games and the Capitol; like ferocious wasps with hallucinogenic venom and wolf "Muttations" with the faces of dead children.
The Hollows replaced the nuclear arms race with the genetic arms race as part of the backstory, which in Turn creates the virus which wipes out a big chunk of humanity allowing the loss of the Masquerade.
The Houses focused on medical issues on the lawless planet of Jackson's Whole occasionally dabble in this if they think there's profit to be had from it, including the creation of Sgt. Taura, a failed Super Soldier project.
Cetagandans are big on genetic engineering, working toward Transhumanism for their ruling caste, as well as various bioweapons.
In Tom Kratman's Caliphate, the virus being developed by the eponymous Caliphate, for use against the rest of the world is 97% fatal, with it believed by the protagonists that the other three percent would be crippled even if they didn't die from the disease.
Dark Angel: The superhuman abilities of X5 supersoldiers and other Manticore transgenics are the result of mixing genetic material from various humans (generally people who were very strong, smart, or talented) and animals, with some serious tweaking, into DNA cocktails. Genetic engineering is also the explanation for their attractiveness (the ones that don't look half-man half-beast or covered in huge bumps).
Used in Heroes, whereby the plot-arc of a world-changing nuclear bomb from the first season has been replaced with the plot-arc of a gene-altering formula in the third season.
Somewhat subverted, though, as powers tend to come from characters being naturally or artificially evolved toward some post-human ideal that results in ascension. Rather than powers being some unique attribute, all characters tend to evolve in roughly the same way. Other "superpowers" are usually the result of alien technology that operates on unexplained principles or some vague appeal to quantum mechanics (which probably ties back into how near-ascended beings actually do what they do, anyway).
In Star Trek, The Eugenics Wars (aprx. 1993-1996) were a series of wars caused by an attempt to improve humanity through selective breeding and genetic engineering. Records of the era are patchy, so exact causes are unknown, but in 1992 genetically augmentedSuper SoldierKhan Noonien Singh gained control over more than half the Eastern hemisphere. The following year, over forty nations were overthrown by Augements, most of whom proceeded to enslave unaugmented humans to varying degrees. The subsequent wars nearly plunged the Earth into a second Dark Age and killed over 37 million.
Genetic engineering was also a main cause of World War III (2026-2056), a genocidal conflict that killed 600 million, destroyed many of the planet's major cities and governments, and irradiated the atmosphere causing several nuclear winters. Recovery as a species was perhaps only possible through the help of the Vulcans, whom we made First Contact with in 2063, shortly after the official end of the war.
Once upon a time, a primate family hid a gravely injured Founder from pursuers. The Founder expressed its gratitude by promising that they will, one day, be transformed into a superior form and rule a vast galactic empire. The primate species is now known as the Vorta, advisers, scientists and policy makers of the Dominion.
The Jem'Hadar, super soldiers of the Dominion, are noted to qualify at least dozens of recommendations of the Evil Overlord List in their biological design. They wear no helmets(1, 130), wear carapaces that have no semblance to Nazi uniforms(21, 130), have superior eye sight that makes them expert marksmen(4, 56), possess exceptional strength and hand-eye coordination(236) are asexual in design(33, 43, 51, 84, 153), gain sustenance from a single source the Founders have absolute control over and require nothing else to function(127, 200, fark-9), require no sleep or rest(172, fark-9), work for the pleasure of obeying the "order of things" imprinted in their instincts(44, 48, 94, fark-9), have no fear or qualms using human wave attacks for the "order of things"(75, 234), memorize the entire manual with eidetic memory(57), and finally, can camouflage themselves to match the surroundings(237). And that's just the "design" part, not including their equally Dangerously Genre Savvy training.
Their design, summarized by Quark, is that "the Jem'Hadar don't eat, don't sleep and don't have sex."
After The Bomb can be summarized by this trope, and this trope alone. It's a postapocalyptic setting brought about by genetic modification becoming so commonplace that everybody and their little kid could buy a kit from the store to do it, and the consequences of that coming back to bite everyone in the ass (a program to breed a better chicken accidentally produces theropod dinosaurs, for instance).
The d20 Modern remake of Gamma World abandoned I Love Nuclear Power in favor of this; the Big Blast Out was a horrific spasm of genetic engineering and nanotechnology gone haywire that annihilated civilization and unleashed all manner of ghastly abominations, including giant snake/bears that are eternally, ravenously hungry, featureless shadow-skinned humanoids, and worse.
While genetic engineering is mostly a low-level background affair in the BattleTech universe (sometimes offhandedly mentioned as having been used to adapt a particular plant or animal species to a new world, but even the Clans' warrior breeding program relies primarily on just old-fashioned eugenics), the recent Wars of Reaving sourcebook introduced DNA-targeted viruses capable of selectively infecting trueborn in general, particular bloodlines, and even specific individuals if desired as part of the arsenal of the renegade Clan scientist faction known as "the Society". (Of course, part of what made them effective in this case was that Society members had easy access to DNA samples of their intended targets courtesy of the scientist caste being charged with managing the breeding program just mentioned in the first place.)
The twisted monstrosities of Fallout, which in spite of being set in a 1950s-esque retro post-nuclear wasteland, the Universe Bible credits largely to a mutated bioweapon.
According to one source, Deathclaws are the products of direct genetic engineering. This applies to a number of other (significantly less widespread) creatures as well, with more canonical certainty.
According to the Pokédex, Mewtwo was genetically engineered to be the most powerful Pokémonever. Unlike most of what the Pokédex says, this was unmistakably true, at least in Generation I. Not only was the Psychic-type a total Game Breaker, but Mewtwo had the highest base stat total of all 150+1 mons at the time. Later generations have introduced Pokémon that surpass the Genetic Pokémon, but Mewtwo is still one tough bastard.
The subjects of Les Enfants Terribles in Metal Gear Solid and its sequels. They use the 'genetically engineered from before birth' and 'nanomachine enhanced' versions.
Crusader implies that Silencers are genetically engineered living weapons, just one of many in the Cliché Storm.
The premise of the Geneforge series was the creation and alteration of new life-forms with magic and 'essence'. Indeed, all of the game's plots consist of one side trying to keep irresponsible people from creating life and others trying to stop the other from hoarding their power. Two of the more obvious examples are massive, fast-breeding bugs that are equally likely to eat your crops and yourself, or canisters that make spellcasting part of your DNA.
This is also the entire premise of GEM: Genetically Engineered Monsters.
BioShock: all of your plasmids and power-ups have abilities that, even with the most advanced bioengineering in the world, would be physiologically if not physically impossible. One of the worst offenders is a tonic that alters the way your research camera behaves.
In the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, genetic engineering in the form of the Jenova Project and its side-projects is responsible for producing Sephiroth, Genesis, Angeal, the Tsviets, and most of the series' other Super Soldiers.
Urgent Transformation Crisis uses this as the central plot element.
The Krakow Studios comic Spinnerette lampshades and double-subverts it. The title character gains her powers from a Freak Lab Accident involving a "genetic infusion chamber" used to study spider heredity. This occurs soon after the head researcher berates a reporter for suggesting such nonsense.
Dr. Lambha: "God damn you idiots in the media! I'm doing research on spider genetics, and you infer that I'm going to cure fatness or turn people into spidermen! Do you understand nothing about science?"
In-universe, this is known as the "Cherenkov-Kirby Reaction". It was being studied by Dr. Universe before he turned evil as a clean source of power.
Chapter 2 of Mushroom Go involves a piranha plant genetically engineered to be intelligent.
All over the place in The Cyantian Chronicles, first the Rumuah created the immigrant Cyantians, then the Squids enslaved the Cyantians and augmented some as pit fighters, forming the first generation of Elites. Finally Exotica Genoworks has been creating new species of Cyantians ranging from skunks designed as air fresheners to psionic raccoons.
Jobe, of the Whateley Universe, is one of the great genetic engineers of the planet, despite only being fourteen. He has a plan for taking a person and changing her into a perfect drow. He accidentally gets an injection of the serum and finds out it has Gone Horribly Right.
However most of them rarely use them for fighting, just purely cosmetic. To them it is pretty much getting a Tattoo in today's time. Just as tattooing can have unwanted side effects note such as allergies and infection, even with clean equipment, so splicing can have negative effects as well.note Increased aggression and impulsiveness are noted in one episode.
Came up a few times in Galaxy Rangers. On the lighter side was a Noodle Incident with mutated, flying plants that smelled horribly when decomposing. "Marshmallow Trees" had the titular trees (genetically engineered crops) growing out of control and threatening to destroy a colony world. The darkest example is the Supertrooper Project.
The Spectacular Spider Man uses this as the Phlebotinum du Jour, not only with Spider-Man's genetically-altered spider-bite, but with Electro's powers, granted partly by genetically-altered, phlebotinum-enhancedelectric eels. The Lizard too, is a result of Curt Connors dosing himself with an electrically catalyzed formula containing genetically-modified lizard DNA. The big one, though, is many of Spidey's enemies- Rhino, Sandman, Kraven etc.- are the result of OsCorp experiments designed to create superhumans, some of whom were pitted against Spidey for the sole purpose of distracting him so that he is too busy dealing with them to worry about The Man Behind the Man Tombstone and all the crime he is behind (other villains are tech based). The Green Goblin, likewise, got his powers from an experimental superhuman serum. The series was Screwed by the Network, but had it continued it would have adapted The Clone Saga which would have continued using this trope as a theme, with Mad Scientist Miles Warren already working on such stuff by the end of the second season.
The 90s animated Spider-Man series uses a weird mixture of this trope and its predecessor. Several of the heroes & villains in that series got their powers from the "Neogenic Recombinator", a device that used a controlled beam of radiation to rewrite a subject's genetic code, and "neogenics" was a new science that was being investigated by many parties.
Almost invoked the trope by name when the man scientist claimed that metal was the past, the material for the future being human flesh.
Gargoyles has Anton Sevarius, a geneticist working for Xanatos (or whoever else is paying him at the moment), creating a genetics-altering compound that mutates Derek Maza and three other humans into Gargoyle-equivalents. The compound combines bat, big cat, and electric eel DNA, among others.
While the summary of the topic is almost universally true (at least in human experience) there have been very recent success with gene therapy - a process where an engineered virus is used to inject DNA into a particular tissue to modify the function of that tissue in some slight, but predictable fashion. Gene therapy has been a "holy grail" of sorts in the medical/genetics world for the last couple of decades with little-to-no success to show for the time and effort. However, very recently there has been success in a specific instance, where the process has shown some success at reversing the effects of macular degeneration, a disease - usually in the elderly - that causes blindness. DNA is injected directly into the affected eye tissue with sequences that are designed to counter the effects of the degeneration, which is known to have some genetic components. The tissue accepts the new DNA and starts generating appropriate proteins to counter the degeneration. This is a well-known, well studied disease, with a very specific application of this treatment, but the literature has shown measurable, medically significant effect. It's not exactly super-powers, but is capable of modifying, however slightly, a very specific body tissue, in a very specific way, WITH SCIENCE!!
A more general (that is, not focused on a single body part) application is the production of insulin from bacteria. We used to use pig or cow insulin, but they don't work quite as well for people, it's easier to retrieve from bacteria, and there is a chance of an allergic reaction to residual bits of pig or cow.
Technically, a genetically engineered super power could be more probable than a random mutation by radiation. With radiation, even if you do somehow get a beneficial mutation (and this is incredibly improbable, mind you), you'll still get radiation poisoning and die. GE is at least purposefully done with an aim in mind, instead of just randomly damaging bits of the genome in the event of radiation exposure.
Genetic engineering, when applied to animals, can create blind or abnormally smart mice. Or mice that are always very hungry. Or cats with coats that glow under black lights. Still a far cry from superpowers.