One of the strongest traits of Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia is the creativity of the characters’ superpowers (known as Quirks), especially because of the way they are all sort of grounded in reality. Even when characters can shoot explosions, tape, or fire and ice out of their body, there’s a realistic physicality to them; be it side effects or being able to train and grow them like muscles. Deku’s inherited Quirk, One For All, is no different. In fact, if we apply the study of epigenetics to One For All, we find that its origin, stockpiling, transference, and access to past users’ visions and powers all have quite a bit of real science to them.
Epigenetics is the scientific study of changes in gene function that occur not because of changes in DNA but rather how the body reads the DNA due to habits, environmental changes, or other factors. As the National Human Genome Research Institute puts it: If DNA is the language, then epigenetic modifications are accent marks. In My Hero Academia, this can apply to Quirks overall in how they are trained like a muscle.
Epigenetics gives reality to One For All beginning with its origin. The Quirk was created when a power-stockpiling ability was combined with a Quirk allowing for power transference to form a power that could be increased, passed down, increased, passed down, etc. Essentially, the DNA of the transference Quirk was “accented” by the stockpiling Quirk, giving it something to pass down and creating One For All.
Stockpiling and Transference
The stockpiling ability of One For All, being able to train and never have a limit of strength, has a basis in how humans’ ability to gain muscles work. According to What Is Epigenetics?, a study conducted at Keele University showed “that epigenetic marks are not only adjusted as a result of resistance exercise, but can be remembered later on for muscle growth, even after the muscles may have returned back to their initial size.” Put in more simple terms, muscle has memory, which could be a real-world explanation for both how One For All stockpiles power and how that power level is consistent when it is passed from one user to another.
Think about how One For All is passed down, a piece of DNA must be ingested — this part is pure fiction, but the fact that One For All is tied to the DNA is in line with the real science of epigenetics, since the DNA was modified by and remembers the powers of One For All and thus holds the key to its power. This would also explain how the Quirks of each past One For All User later become accessible to Deku.
Epigenetics specifically looks at how outside factors add “accent marks” to the language of DNA and the Quirks of past One For All users can fit into this. The past users’ Quirks — known so far: Fa Jin, Danger Sense, Blackwhip, Smokescreen, and Float — could have been merged into One For All in the same way the stockpile Quirk was incorporated, serving as a modification to the transference Quirk. However, they and the visions of the past users remained inaccessible to everyone but Deku.
This sudden accessibility in the latest user could also be explained by epigenetics. Recall that the Keele University study said muscles remember how to gain strength even after they lose it, which would explain both the potential to access those Quirks and the memories of the users/experience who used those Quirks. These Quirks and visions remained in the DNA of One For All but lay dormant until they were needed… that is until Deku accessed them.
Perhaps Deku’s environment — needing power to fight a growing threat — served as a DNA modifier itself, forcing his body to read the One For All DNA differently. This could be a possible explanation for why Deku gained access to the past users’ abilities and memories where others couldn’t, and it all has substantial grounding in real science.
The Reality of Quirks
It’s unclear if Kohei Horikoshi had epigenetics in mind when it came to building the lore of Quirks and One For All — though Quirks, in general, are an incredibly well-thought-out aspect of My Hero Academia, so it’s entirely possible. Regardless, it’s fascinating that Horikoshi’s world-building, specifically One For All, holds up under the microscope of real-world science, serving to enrich an already fantastic series.
Sean Aitchison is a writer and researcher from LA who watches too much anime and knows too much about Sonic the Hedgehog. Follow him on twitter @Sean8UrSon for his work and listen to his podcast, Sonic Podcast Adventure (@SonicPod).