The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants

The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants

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by Anne Elizabeth Simon, Simon, Anne Simon
     
 

Could an alien organism really survive a centuries-long trip on a meteor and remain virulent enough to attack a human being? How would a scientist know she was peering at a microbe from another planet? What's the possibility of a genetically mutated monster actually developing?

In a gripping exploration of the facts behind the science fiction that has

Overview

Could an alien organism really survive a centuries-long trip on a meteor and remain virulent enough to attack a human being? How would a scientist know she was peering at a microbe from another planet? What's the possibility of a genetically mutated monster actually developing?

In a gripping exploration of the facts behind the science fiction that has enthralled millions of X-philes, Anne Simon — the respected virologist who comes up with the science for many intriguing episodes — discusses telomeres, cloning, the Hayflick limit, nanotechnology, endosymbionts, lentiviruses, and other strange phenomena that have challenged the intellect and threatened the lives and sanity of America's favorite FBI agents. With Simon's extraordinary gift for explaining complicated, cutting-edge science in a light, accessible style, and her behind-the-scenes commentary on the development of various plot lines, The Real Science Behind the X-Files will appeal to science buffs and X-Files aficionados alike.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Virologist Simon doubles as the science adviser for television's The X-Files, helping agents Scully and Mulder's adventures fit, or at least approach, plausibility. Her informative book cuts back and forth between X-Files script excerpts, behind-the-scenes anecdotes of her work on the series and accounts of the real-life counterparts and inspirations for the show's many biological plot devices. Where, for instance, Scully and Mulder find a town whose citizens stay young through cannibalism, Simon explains the real consequences when people eat people: a rare brain ailment caused by rogue proteins called prions. Simon (who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst) likes to remind readers that professional scientists watch The X-Files and look for mistakes. For one episode, Simon insisted that the correct DNA code for a certain virus, rather than just random letters, appear on a geneticist's computer. A visiting professor at her university used the episode in a lecture: he expected to mock the show, and was stunned when a database search showed that The X-Files got it right. When Scully developed cancer, the tests she underwent were real, but their results arrived unrealistically fast: as a result, Simon says, some biochemists tell their colleagues to "call Scully" when an experiment goes slowly. "X-philes" who enjoy these and similar stories will learn plenty of biology in the bargain; among the other hot fields and ideas Simon explains are extraterrestrial bacteria, cloning, genetic mutations, biological warfare, the ominous decline in the world's population of frogs and the likelihood of extending the human life span. Agent, Esmond Harmsworth at Zachary Shuster. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-Acknowledging that many of the plots are pure science fiction, Simon demonstrates that the core of many of these stories is rooted in fact. At the conclusion of the "Firewalker" episode, protagonists Mulder and Scully find themselves spending a month in a decontamination room. Simon informs readers that just such a facility actually exists, in Fort Detrick, MD. In other chapters, she educates them about microbes that can live in temperatures as high as 235 degrees Fahrenheit near vents in deep ocean trenches, botfly larvae in Central and South America that literally crawl beneath an infected person's skin, and the interaction between cells and viruses. Other captivating facts include a true incident in 1994, in which a patient was rushed to a California emergency room. In the course of her unsuccessful treatment, odors from her blood caused 6 medical workers to faint and 28 others to suffer distress. The reason is still unknown; the case remains unexplained. X-Files buffs will delight in learning the background for the many familiar episodes, but being a fan of the show is not a prerequisite. Teens with any interest in science will find this book quite compelling.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
The goal of this book, as stated by the author, is "to explain to nonscientists the real science behind [the TV show] 'The X-Files.' . . . to use the show as a springboard to examine the many science issues that are blended into plots—hot topics like cloning, aging, genetic engineering, and life on other planets. In an age where science is transforming the food we eat, the information that we process, and the health care we receive, knowledge of basic scientific tenets can no longer be thought of as too complicated, too boring, or confined to the realm of stereotypic white-coated geeks. Besides the mere facts, I also hope to convey the excitement of biological science, which abounds with creatures and mysteries every bit as strange as any appearing on 'The X-Files.' Enjoy the journey." (p. 22.) In the foreword, Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files," says, "[T]he ideas which become 'The X-Files' stories are rooted in hard science, and even when they are not generated as such, they're built on a foundation of scientific convention."

The chapter titles are intriguing: "Hidden and Hungry," "Visitors from the Void," "Mutants and Monsters," "Releasing the Genetic Genie," "Seeking the Fountain of Youth," and "Fooling with Mother Nature." As pointed out by the author, the life of a research scientist is filled with constant questioning and exploring, formulating hypotheses, and dismissing hypotheses as new evidence is found. Much of the knowledge regarding organisms comes from what the author refers to as small science—individual investigators at universities, colleges, and museums, together with their students.

I recommend this book highly to general audiences and readers ofall ages, from grades 5 and 6 through college. Highly Recommended, Grades 7-College, Teaching Professional, General Audience. REVIEWER: Dr. Otto M. Friedrich, Jr. (University of Texas)

Kirkus Reviews
TV's popular X-Files, criticized for peddling woo-woo ideas, is actually careful to preserve scientific accuracy—so says the show's science consultant. Simon (Biochemistry/Univ. of Mass., Amherst) was a fan of the show before she discovered that its creator, Chris Carter, was a family friend. She was attracted by the characterization of Scully, the show's resident skeptic, one of the most realistic scientists to appear as a regular TV character. When Carter contacted Simon to vet the science on one episode, she became a regular consultant. Here she examines the scientific basis for a number of the shows, focusing on her own areas of specialty—biochemistry and molecular biology—from which many episodes have drawn material. The biology of our own planet still has many unexplored areas—new species are being discovered every day, many in environments formerly thought hostile to life (the ocean depths or deep underground). Simon lays the groundwork for an understanding of how DNA and the other basic molecules of life operate. The show's tension between the credulous FBI agent Mulder and the skeptical Scully arises from the unexpected ways that living things can act. Many episodes—such as the one featuring El Chupacabra, the goat-sucking vampire of Hispanic folklore—involve Scully's finding a naturalistic explanation for what Mulder is ready to see as a supernatural phenomenon. This gives Simon plenty of room to explore byways of science, and she does so without betraying either her scientific training or the entertainment value of the show. She cites specific episodes, often with excerpts from the script, then goes off to explore the wider scientific background.This gives her a shot at everything from evolution to exobiology, from cryptozoology to DNA sequencing, and the result is a lively, well-written book that will please fans of the show without embarrassing serious scientists. Of most interest to fans, but the science is still solid. (Author tour)

From the Publisher
Jerry A. Coyne The New York Times Book Review Simon manages to deliver a palatable and surprisingly large dose of information with each episode.

Nature An absorbing memoir for X-Files fans...Simon writes in a bright, breezy, and breakneck style, and manages to cram in an immense amount of detail about scientific research in a dazzling variety of areas.

Loy Volkman, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley A fun book to read, witty and amazingly informative. Each reader is guaranteed to learn something.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780684856179
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
10/04/1999
Series:
X-Files Series
Pages:
318
Product dimensions:
6.43(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One

It is interesting to speculate on why the hermaphroditic condition evolved in many simple animals but not in mammals or birds. Some parasites like tapeworms spend their entire life inside other organisms, living a bachelor existence while making their hosts miserable. Coming in contact with a tapeworm of the opposite sex would be problematic if only single worms can infect hosts; evolution would therefore favor the worm that was self-sufficient. Being a hermaphrodite also means that you can explore new frontiers and colonize new habitats all by yourself. However, this isn't true of all hermaphrodites. Many if not most animals that are hermaphrodites can't tango alone and therefore need another member of their species for procreation. Of course, they don't need to be too selective. Being both male and female, any other member of their species will do.

The inability to fertilize their own eggs also helps hermaphrodites avoid inbreeding. One has only to look at the Peacock clan in the X-Files episode "Home" to understand the dangers, both mental and physical, associated with being related at several different levels. Sometimes during a single mating, hermaphrodites take turns being the male or the female, which must be an interesting experience. It was once thought that hermaphrodites lived longer than males, which would give hermaphrodites a natural selective advantage for evolutionary purposes. More recent studies, however, indicate that the males were engaging in normal macho behavior, which tended to shorten the lives of males living with other males during the experiment.

Scully's discovery that two worms will kill each other provides the answer to saving the member of the team that is infected. When an additional worm is added to the infected person, the two worms finish each other off. What then to do about the one remaining living worm? This dilemma leads to an unusual reversal of roles for our FBI heroes. Mulder wants to keep the worm alive, arguing that research is needed on its genetic structure. Scully, the scientist, wants it destroyed, feeling that the worm is too dangerous to live. The rights of species to survive often conflict with the needs of humans whose lives or livelihood demand their destruction. The eradication of poisonous snakes in the Northeastern United States, the elimination of wolves from many parts of the country, and the destruction of the habitat of the spotted owl in the Northwestern United States are all due to conflicts between nature and man. In the end, Scully wins the argument and the worms are a threat no more.


Mighty Mites in Trees

Cutting down trees in Washington National Forest is not a job for the fainthearted. Chain saws missing their targets...trees crashing about...logs with a mind of their own...and if that weren't enough, loggers in the X-Files episode "Darkness Falls" deserve an additional measure of hazard pay for the unexpected surprise they receive after giving the final death blows to a massive old-growth tree. Unfortunately, none of them live to collect. Tiny wood mites that have made this tree their home for hundreds of years are not pleased when forced to vacate the premises after the tree tumbles to the forest floor. These little mites are not your typical wood mites. Repulsed by light and glowing a bright iridescent green, the mites soon realize that the perfect menu for those long summer days isn't dried-up tree, but rather desiccated human, conveniently wrapped in family-sized cocoons.

Radio messages to the dried-up loggers go unanswered, causing the FBI and park rangers to investigate. Mulder and Scully are shocked to discover that swarms of mites are responsible for killing the defenseless loggers. With no visible signs of UFOs or meteor impact craters, Mulder doesn't believe that the mites are the vanguard of an alien invasion. Rather, he theorizes that the mites represent a species that was probably extinct except for the inhabitants of the now dead tree. Mulder bases his views on the fact that modern-day mites aren't repulsed by light and don't glow in the dark or desiccate and cocoon hapless humans. Mulder suggests that preserved eggs of the extinct mites lay dormant beneath the ground for an untold number of years until unearthed by the eruption by a nearby volcano. Waking from their long sleep, the eggs hatched into larvae, which then crept into the tree through its roots. The mites proceeded to feast contentedly on tree innards for hundreds of years until their home was rudely toppled by the loggers.

For Mulder's theory to be within the bounds of extreme possibility, reviving other ancient eggs that are dormant and snoozing needs to be possible. The oldest eggs that have been revived are crustacean eggs laid around 1630 in a pond in Newport, Rhode Island. Sediment caused by Europeans settling in the area covered the eggs and kept them from hatching. The eggs would still be buried had not Roger Segelken of Cornell University unearthed them, which caused many of the eggs to finally hatch.

A considerable gap exists, of course, between reviving four-hundred-year-old eggs and eggs that are millions of years old. However, creatures have been brought back to life that are far older.

As a high school student, I spent many hours at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History trying to piece together the skull of a 7-million-year-old horse (before you get too excited, it's not the horse that comes back to life). I vividly remember all those bones lying in front of me week after week like pieces from a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It was exhausting work. Intense concentration and much trial and error led to only a few tiny fragments reuniting with neighboring bone fragments each hour. Before I began working on the horse, I thought that being a paleontologist would be exciting and fulfilling work. But after a few years of immersion in one stack of ancient bone fragments after another, I realized that being a paleontologist trainee left me with a sense of frustration. That horse was never going to trot away when completed. Nor would the ancient bones reveal many clues about the true nature of the extinct horse.

For a few scientists who study prehistoric plants and animals, these frustrations are partially assuaged by finding their tiny subjects encased in amber. Amber deposits are found all over the world, the oldest dating back some 320 million years. Sap, oozing out of wounded trees, trapped and mummified an astonishing variety of insects, crabs, scorpions, leaves, mushrooms, and even lizards. If the sap hardened in an environment where there was limited exposure to oxygen, it turned into the colorful, translucent substance known as amber. Amber provides a window into the last actions of the trapped creatures -- a tiny leaf beetle preserved in the act of fighting off the sap that slowly engulfed it; a jumping spider clutching the millipede it never got a chance to eat; little fruit flies reflexively laying eggs; and midges enjoying one last romantic fling.

Browsing through the beautifully illustrated book on amber by David Grimaldi (Amber Window to the Past), you can almost envision the centipedes, caterpillars, and lizards quickly scurrying up the nearest tree if released from their amber prisons. However, as lifelike as these trapped creatures look, down to the tiny scales on the wings of moths and the profuse hairs that cover the larvae of owl flies, they are, of course, very dead. These encased animals have about as much chance of coming back to life as do ancient Egyptian mummies. But what is true of the mummified animals may not be true of the tiny creatures that inhabited the insides of the dead animals. What if these endosymbionts and endopathogens are still alive, waiting only for a crack in the amber that travels through their mummified animal host to be free at last?

If these tiny creatures are still alive, then their DNA must be undamaged. The DNA of an organism is analogous to the hard drive of a computer. The DNA contains all the information required for an organism to make or acquire the substances necessary for life. Imagine how well a computer would operate if its hard drive was shattered into thousands or millions of pieces (trust me, you don't need to conduct your own experiment). Intact DNA, which is normally present as a single piece in bacterial cells, forty-six pieces in human cells, or as many as a few hundred pieces in some plant cells, is required for any organism frozen in time to restart its dormant metabolism and prepare to live again.

Scientists have been very interested in studying the DNA of organisms preserved in amber -- and not simply to create living dinosaur amusement parks. By analyzing the DNA from ancestors of modern organisms, insights can be gained into the evolution of that species.

The discovery that DNA isolated from animals in amber isn't completely degraded -- in other words, it isn't broken into millions of pieces -- was established in 1992. Tiny fragments of DNA were sufficiently intact to be analyzed from a 25-million-year-old termite and bee. This meant that insect DNA can survive for millions of years, but apparently not in an undamaged form. The next report on ancient DNA was published in 1993, on the same day that the movie Jurassic Park was released. Newspaper headlines proclaimed that DNA from the time of the dinosaurs had been discovered and hinted that a real Jurassic Park might be just around the corner. The papers didn't dwell on the minor detail that the ancient DNA came from an organism somewhat less exotic than Velociraptor -- a weevil that inhabited the early Cretaceous period some 130 million years ago. Given the likely size of the audience for ancient-weevil amusement parks, the story soon died. However, scientific interest remains undiminished. Since then, about one third of the attempts to isolate DNA from animals in amber have been successful.

The survival of even fragmented DNA from creatures trapped in amber is astonishing. Amber, being the sap of trees, is organic material composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The high oxygen content implies that the environment inside the amber is oxidizing, which leads to the production of many free radicals that are damaging to DNA. After millions of years of contact with oxygen, any DNA should be long gone. However, water is also required for DNA to fragment, and amber resin acts like a desiccant to suck water from the cells of the organisms that became trapped. The lack of water must afford some protection to the DNA and allow it to endure the millions of years of exposure to the destructive tendencies of oxygen.

Although the DNA of amber-encased weevils still is highly fragmented, the DNA of endoparasites or endosymbionts may be much more intact. It is well known that some bacteria and fungi when presented with harsh environmental conditions (such as having your host become mummified in sap) are able to form spores. Bacterial spores keep their fragile DNA in a watertight container surrounded by a thick, protective protein coat. Spores are resistant to conditions such as boiling, radiation, pressure, and chemicals that would mean instant death to an unprotected cell. Extrapolations from modern experiments suggest that spores could survive for several hundred thousand years if surrounded by organic material that protected their DNA from the sun's ionizing radiation, another producer of free radicals. Spores inside mummified insects should get plenty of protection from radiation due to the organic material of the amber and the exoskeleton of the insect. However, it is a far cry from saying that spores might survive for one hundred thousand years to showing that they can survive for 25 million years.

But this is precisely what Raul Cano from California Polytechnic State University showed in 1995. In an amazing paper published in the eminent journal Science, Cano described extracting bacterial spores from the insides of an extinct species of stingless bee encased in a piece of amber that was unearthed in the Dominican Republic. The spores, which Cano revived and successfully grew in the lab, were from a strain of bacteria called Bacillus sphaericus. This was significant, since the same bacteria live inside modern-day Dominican stingless bees.

Naturally, upon hearing the news of million-year-old bacteria growing in a lab in California, many scientists were as skeptical as Scully would have been. For this news to become truly accepted, the experiment needs to be repeated by other scientists. Unfortunately, no one except Raul Cano has been able to revive ancient bacteria, although many have tried. The skeptics prefer to believe that the little bacilli were simply contaminating modern bacteria that just happen to also live in Dominican bees and just happened to enter Cano's sterile chamber in California. These scientists will have even more reason to be skeptical when they read the most recent paper from the Cano lab. The latest work describes the isolation from amber of an ancient version of a bacterial species called Staphylococcus. Staphylococci don't form spores, so any revived cells must have survived for millions of years in the absence of a protective protein shell. If true, then the survival powers of DNA are much greater than previously realized.

If ordinary bacteria can be revived after snoozing for millions of years inside amber, might dormant mite eggs also survive under similar conditions? Mites are arthropods, just like spiders. At first glance, mite eggs resemble considerably smaller versions of the eggs you eat for breakfast. Crack open the shell and there's a glob of yolk inside. Mite eggs, however, come in little packets like peas in a pod, and can survive very harsh environmental conditions. If a chicken lays an egg in a hole in late fall and forgets about it, the result will be a dead, frozen chicken egg. But mites, like other land-living arthropods, have eggs that survive the winter. Arthropods make their own brand of antifreeze somewhat similar to the antifreeze used in radiators to keep car engines from freezing. Also, just like bacterial spores that must shut down their metabolism during a long sleep, mite eggs slow down their metabolic clocks when in nasty environmental conditions. In another parallel with the ancient spores, mite eggs can live in a desiccated environment. They are like cacti, able to suck water in without letting water out.

As sturdy as mite eggs are, surviving for millions of years underground protected by nothing except their waxy cuticle shell is not likely. Mulder uses brevity when reciting his theory on the origin of the mites -- not too surprising given the presence of desiccated loggers hanging in trees. If he had expanded his explanation, Mulder might have speculated that the eggs survived by virtue of being encased in amber. Some of the one million different species of mites currently sharing our planet are internal parasites of insects. If an insect host became entombed in amber millions of years ago, the mites living inside the insect would suffer the same fate. Any eggs of the trapped mites would be doubly protected from the oxidizing environment of the sap and the long-term irradiation of the sun by the body of the mother mite and the insect host.

Mulder speculates that the eggs were unearthed by a volcanic eruption. Imagine a massive volcano hurling rocks, trees, and amber into the air. While it is tempting to imagine the heat of the volcano melting the amber prison, thereby releasing the trapped eggs, any temperature hot enough to melt amber would surely destroy the eggs. It's not, however, beyond the realm of extreme possibility that the amber prison was flung high into the sky by the force of a volcano and then plummeted back to Earth, slamming into the ground. The force of the impact could cause amber, mummified insect, and mother mite to shatter, releasing the stored eggs. If the eggs were still alive, they could become stimulated to begin the process of development into an embryo -- perhaps they would just need some sunlight and warm temperatures; the ancient Rhode Island crustacean eggs required only a bit of fluorescent light and a few degrees above freezing to hatch from their four-hundred-year sleep. Once awakened, the mite embryos would develop into larvae, which, still groggy after such a long sleep, might climb into the nearest tree and stay hidden until their descendants are rudely disrupted hundreds of years later.

While the light-sensitive mites lie hidden throughout the day, during the night it's the humans who need to hide. As Mulder and Scully huddle in the loggers' cabin trying to will the sputtering generator to keep the single bulb lit, Scully muses on how the mites might glow in the dark. While Scully believes that the mites absorb enzymes taken from the bodies that they cocoon, there are better explanations. Fireflies glow in the dark because they can make two items: an enzyme called luciferase and a substance called luciferin. The firefly enzyme luciferase is able to make light by combining luciferin with a second substance, ATP, the fuel of cells. Humans don't make luciferase, so the mites can't be sucking this enzyme out of humans. However, humans do make and consume about four pounds of ATP every hour. It's possible that the mites make both the enzyme luciferase and the substance luciferin but not enough ATP. So maybe the mites were sucking the ATP out of human cells in order to supplement their own stores of ATP and keep glowing.

Mulder and Scully survive the night in the loggers' cabin but are attacked by the mites the following night as they try to escape from the single-minded swarms. When they are recovering in the hospital from their near fatal desiccations, a doctor tells Mulder that they found a large concentration of luciferin in their lungs, indicating that the mites probably were producing light using the enzyme luciferase. Although Mulder and Scully recover, the mites are not so fortunate. Teams of exterminators spray insecticide throughout their mountain site, wiping out the ancient swarms and returning the mites to their previous extinct state. It's doubtful that anyone, even Mulder, shed any tears over the loss of this particular species from the planet.

Copyright © 1999 by Anne Simon

Meet the Author

Anne Simon, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an editor of the international journal Virology. She lives in Bowie, Maryland.

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