biology, Opinion piece, Science, science fiction, SF and science

Of wasps and aliens

I remember as a child I liked to watch a lot of nature programmes that my mother would record for me off the television (recorded on VCR, anyone under about 30 will be bemused to know!). One of the ones that fascinated and horrified me featured the tale of a parasitic wasp that captured a caterpillar, paralysing it with its sting. It then laid eggs in the body of the caterpillar which hatched and ate their hapless victim alive. Gruesome!

wasps caterpillar
Caterpillar chestbursters, i.e. wasp larvae

Of course, this is the obvious reason why a lot of SF (particularly films) like to feature alien biology as being parasitic. They suck you in (pun intended) with that element of horrified fascination – and you can get a lot of mileage out of that (if not necessarily high-quality drama). It’s not like there aren’t plenty of horrible examples of parasites – here’s a relatively cute cartoon video, with only some nasty pictures, but there’s plenty worse to search for if you have the stomach for it. I still recall that parasitology practical in my second year pathology module with horror…not least because the entire room smelt of, well, poo.

The gruesome wasps were of course one of the inspirations behind Alien, one of my all-time favourite films. The film is stuffed with metaphors for sex, rape and birth (although probably anyone who has given birth probably notices the birth thing more…), but interestingly the director, Ridley Scott, said that:

“It has absolutely no message…it works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.”

Ah, visceral, such a great word – and a key one. This is pure Body Horror – as, indeed, a lot of horror is. These bad aliens don’t just invade, blow up your cities and kill you – they take over your body. Being bodily creatures, that squicks us. Badly.

alienfacehuggerattachs
The infamous “facehugger”. 20th century fox.

What’s even worse is when some of them take over your mind. Again, this isn’t without precedent – a lot of parasites change the behaviour of their host organisms. Mice infected with Toxoplasma, for example, lose their fear of cats, because the parasite’s goal is to infect a cat, it’s next host. Stargate’s Goa’uld are snake-like parasites that completely take over the body and the mind – the personality “running” the body is that of the alien. This might have been more horrifying if most of the Goa’uld weren’t pantomime villains often played for laughs as well.

Goauld
From Stargate SG-1, MGM studios.

Far more interesting were the rebel Tok’ra – still Goa’uld, but ones that did not suppress their host and shared the body equally, meaning that you effectively got two people for the price of one. Symbiosis, in other words, as was also seen in Star Trek’s Trill, although here the personalities merged. Unfortunately the series under-utilised these rather interesting characters, and favoured the hugely boring Jaffa, which carried the larval Goa’uld, and were a frankly cliched noble warrior race. I don’t know about you, but I could definitely do with fewer noble warrior races in my fandoms.

Jaffa v Tok'ra
Stargate SG1, MGM studios

Of course, both these examples are hugely unrealistic. Parasites are highly specialised, usually adapted to infect either only one species, or a few at different stages of their lifecycle (e.g. the malarial parasite infecting both us and mosquitoes).  It’s vastly unlikely that an alien species would ever successfully manage to parasitise something from another planet, like us, so rest easy in your beds. (I grant you the Alien xenomorphs were implied to be engineered biological weapons). One of the key problems a parasite has is to evade the host’s immune system from attacking it. Another is reproduction – how are you supposed to meet parasites of the opposite sex when they are stuck somewhere inside another host body? For this reason, many are hermaphrodite, and self-fertilise. Why then does the Alien xenomorph have a queen, only one individual in a colony capable of reproducing (and whose job it is to do little else)?

The whole xenomorph “biology” setup is a weird mash-up of ideas. You have the facehuggers, which hatch from eggs and have to find hosts, which lay another kind of egg down the (human) host’s throat. That then hatches as a chestburster which grows into a bigger adult version of itself that attacks and often kills future hosts, but is supposed to bring them back to the queen so they can be cocooned, ready for the eggs that the queen has laid. It’s taken the idea of the parasitic wasp and the idea of a beehive and produced something completely biologically implausible. Again, I think this is for maximum squick factor. You don’t just get the parasites, you get big monsters stalking you (bringing out a lot of primal childhood fears of something big and scary eating you), and finally one huge and terrifying dragon at the centre of it. You have to love it. I can only think that Stargate adopted the queen system because of Alien, and not because, well, they thought it through at all.

1280x1024-Eggchamber04
Only here to freak you out further: the Alien queen. 20th century fox.

It’s not the only type of parasitism you can encounter of course. John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos exhibited a form of brood parasitism in which human women became pregnant with and later raised as their own children, non-human aliens (very like cuckoos, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests). It’s a more insidious form of societal takeover in this case, not so much a biological one, although it is possible that the humans would later be supplanted by the aliens if they do not necessarily require human hosts.

Cuckoo egg
Cuckoo egg in reed warbler’s nest

This starts treading into the territory of aliens altering our society, as opposed to our bodies. Here, the concept of organisms being interlinked and inter-dependent in ecologies, inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, and the rise of environmentalism, led to parasitism and symbiosis being used as tools to explore human relationships with other species in general. Indeed, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that:

…Exotic biological relationships are transformed into metaphors applicable to social relationships (or vice versa), relationships between humans and other intelligent beings or even, in a psychological sense, relationships between humans and their environment. This is, of course, a totally unscientific use of scientific ideas, but it can be very effective as a literary device….Thus, for example, the hive-mind becomes in SF not so much a mode of social organization pertaining to insect species as a metaphor for considering possible states of human society. Similarly, symbiosis becomes symbolic of an idealized relationship between humans, or between human and other beings.

Indeed, if you don’t get body horror, you get a kind of social horror, like the hive mind of the Borg. Yes, I know this isn’t strictly parasitism, but it is essentially being invaded and taken over by an alien, and it manages to work in that other type of “other” to fear, machine-based life, in a creepily effective amalgam of the two. Oh, and they have a queen as well. Why do they have a queen? Maybe it’s something to do with the linking of fears about communism and “mindless worker drones” (although communist societies shouldn’t, theoretically, have a monarch at the top). Maybe, at the end of the day, modern humans just have to believe that somebody has to be in charge. Or that lots of aliens evolved from something like bees and wasps.

Those nature programmes have a lot to answer for.

biology, Explainer, medicine, News, Opinion piece

Zika virus: from mice to monkeys, via organoids

There’s been a rush of new papers out lately which are starting to explain how Zika virus causes fetal damage. Understandably, since the suspicion of a link between Zika and microcephaly (an abnormally small head, associated with neurological defects) in humans was raised, there’s been an intensive research effort directed at uncovering the causality of this process, but I’m still impressed at the speed at which scientists are gaining answers. It was only last month, after all, that the CDC declared that there was a “causal link” between Zika and microcephaly. Continue reading

biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Opinion piece, Organ transplantation, Science

Growing human organs: we’re closer than you think

(Edit note: I somehow disappeared this whilst correcting an image, so if it’s still problematic, drop me a note!)

One of the major medical advances of the last century was that of organ transplantation: replacing diseased organs with healthy ones from donors (usually the recently dead, but there are exceptions: you can donate one kidney, or parts of your liver, for example). It is a process that has become ever more successful, with improvements in surgery and drugs that suppress the immune system, preventing it from destroying the donated organ. However, this has created a demand for donor organs that is not being met: about 100,000 people worldwide are waiting for donor organs, and many thousands die before they receive one. Continue reading

Biological therapy, biology, cancer, Explainer, genetic modification, Opinion piece, Radiotherapy, science fiction, science news

The future of cancer treatment, part 2

How often do you hear a new medical treatment, or any scientific or technological innovation, as “It sounds like something out of science fiction but WonderDrug X will cure Deadly Disease Y….” ? Too often, in my humble opinion, and, in my suspicions, by people who don’t read that much science fiction (or fact). But there are some cancer treatments coming up that have been mooted (or at least something similar has) in science fiction. Let me throw some catchphrases at you: “Personalised medicine”, “Biological therapy”, and, best of all, “Nanobots!!!” Which obviously deserve three exclamations all of their own. Amidst the headline tags, there’s a welter of confusing terms: “Targeted therapy”, “Immunotherapy”, “Oncolytic therapy,” “proton beam therapy,” and, my personal favourite, “Cyberknife”. Now I’ll go through some of the newer cancer treatments that come with these labels attached: some in use, some in development, and see if they do the justice hype – and if science fiction really did say it all first.

Continue reading

biology, evolution, Opinion piece

No, your [insert favourite humanoid alien of choice here] isn’t a mammal

This comes under the category of “pet hate”, I have to admit, but also it’s a question of getting the science right (more on that another time). Saying such-and-such an alien species is a mammal (or, worse, a reptile, because, you know, they kind of have scaly makeup) is plain wrong. Why? Because the definition of a mammal is not the one you learnt in school. It’s not “has fur or hair, gives birth to live babies, makes breast milk”. A mammal, like any other animal, is defined not only (or even most importantly) by its physical characteristics, but by its ancestors, that is, by its evolutionary history.   Continue reading

biology, genetic modification, Opinion piece

Some thoughts on genome editing

I remember back in around 2007, the head of the lab I was currently working in jetted in (literally; he had been on the other side of the world) in a flurry of excitement about a new technique he wanted to roll out comprehensively to engineer mutations in the lab’s model organism of choice, the zebrafish. The technique involved the use of zinc finger nucleases, and he thought it would revolutionise the whole tricky business of trying to introduce mutations into the genome (i.e. so they could be inherited by any offspring) of model organisms. He was half-right.

Continue reading