biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, Opinion piece, Science, Science and society, SF and science

Will we ever have artificial wombs?

A few years back I attended the annual conference of the British Society for Developmental Biology. There was a discussion session towards the end of the day concerning future developments and directions in our field of research, namely how one goes from the early embryo to, ultimately, the adult human (or other organism). Into a lull in the conversation, my then-boss, who was heavily pregnant with twins and very uncomfortable, interjected the following question: “I only want to know one thing right now: when are we going to be able to grow babies in artificial wombs?” Good question…

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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.

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.

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.

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, genetic modification, Science, science fiction

Alternative biochemistries…on Earth

Firstly, sincere apologies for the reduced frequency of posting. New job, and new term in full swing (not to mention a lot of baby illness), has meant very little spare time. Things will be slow for a while, but I hope to pick up again more in November.

Lifeforms based on biochemistries other than that found on Earth are a small but firm favourite in science fiction, which is interesting given that so many aliens found in science fiction fall into the “Rubber-Forehead alien” trope beloved of Star Trek. Some of these exotic organisms are just microorganisms, which makes it a bit easier – like the infectious agent in Wyndham’s The Andromeda Strain. I would love to create a truly alien world with fully-fledged thinking aliens based on a unique biochemistry…but I have to say to do so properly would require an enormous amount of research and work (which is to say it would take far more time than I feel I will ever possess!)

The classic is probably the “silicon based lifeform”, perhaps most recognisably in the Horta, the, er, rock beast thing that Spock communed with in Star Trek (after they’d finished zapping it, anyway)

From “The Devil in the Dark”, copyright Paramount/Viacom, via MemoryAlpha

The X-files went one further and had a silicon-based fungus that sent you slightly bonkers (of course). Our life is, famously, “carbon-based” – this is actually referring to the vast majority of organic compounds that are built around carbon and its remarkable talent for bonding with other elements. Silicon, a similar element, is often argued as an alternative, but there are problems with this: silicon is a much larger atom, and it doesn’t form bonds with other elements nearly so readily as carbon does. Moreover, carbon is far more abundant in the galaxy. In fact, on our planet, silicon is the more abundant element, but life arose from carbon anyway.

As an interesting aside, a thermophilic bacterium that lives in hot springs has been found to have a fundamental metabolic enzyme, cytochrome c, that can incorporate silicon into organic molecules, really as an accidental byproduct. Researchers have recently artificially selected this enzyme so that is several thousand times more efficient at this process; not that useful, at the moment, but very interesting nonetheless (and yes, they thought of the Horta too!).

Now researchers are trying to make an organism with a modified genetic code. The genetic code is how the information in DNA is converted into a protein. Three nucleotide bases of a DNA (that sequence of A,T,G and C you’ve all seen) codes (via a “messenger” RNA intermediate) for one amino acid, the building block of a protein. A few encode “start” and “stop” signals for the synthetic machinery. There are about 20 commonly used amino acids in living organims (on this planet), although the code allows for more – there are 64 of these “codons” in fact, and some of them are redundant; that is, they can code for more than one amino acid (you will notice from the table below that it is the last base in the triplet that tends to vary). This reduces the possibility of a mutation in the DNA sequence actually causing a potentially damaging change in the protein.


What these researchers have now done is eliminate 7 of the redundant codons in the bacterium E.coli, to leave 57, reasoning that since they were redundant this was unlikely to do the cell any harm. This may sound a little underwhelming, but it is no mean technical feat: they would have to remove every instance of these codons (all 62,214 of them) in the nearly 4 million bases of DNA in the bacterium. Removing them piecemeal would have taken too long, so they essentially re-sequenced the entire genome from scratch.

From Ostrov et al, 2016

Figure 2A: Codons AGA, AGG, AGC, AGU, UUA, UUG, and UAG were computationally replaced by synonymous alternatives (center). Other codons (e.g.,UGC) remain unchanged. Color-coded histograms represent the abundance of the seven forbidden codons in each segment.

Why bother? Like a lot of speculative science, it’s a little hard to tell how useful it will be, but there are a lot of potential uses. E.coli is used to synthesise a lot of proteins useful to us, like a little bioreactor, and this could render it immune to infection by viruses that depend on the codons it no longer uses. Additionally, these seven removed codons could now be used to code for a new synthetic amino acid not normally found in nature, potentially opening up a world of novel proteins. (Oh, and yes, they did build in a failsafe). This is still a work in progress; the genome hasn’t been completely assembled yet, but it’s an interesting and conceptually radical idea. It’s not a non-carbon based biochemistry, to be sure, but, if it were taken a few steps further, it could mean we could create an entirely synthetic organism with an entirely different genetic code to our own. And that’s pretty science fiction, if you ask me.


Ostrov et al, 2016: Design, synthesis and testing toward a 57-codon genome, Science Vol. 353, Issue 6301, pp. 819-822 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3639

Book review, Opinion, Philosophy, Science, science fiction

The Universal Consents of Things: Francis Bacon’s visions of the future

I thought I’d take a scenic diversion from more modern science fiction, and touch upon some far older predictions of future science: those found in the works of the early 17th century statesman Francis Bacon, justly famous for his works on improving human knowledge, and considered an early “modern” scientist. I’m focusing on his 1626 Utopian fable, New Atlantis (which may be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg here). This uncompleted piece, in which he outlines the plans for a scientific research institute (“Salomon’s house”), is interesting enough just for that, but there are some prescient and occasionally astonishing predictions for future science in there as well, both as descriptions of what the inhabitants of his imaginary island are engaged in researching, and as possible future projects, which is what I’ll be looking at.

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General opinion, science fiction

Getting the science in science fiction “right”…or wrong.

Regrettably, the solution to your Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus problem is unlikely to involve a green glowing liquid.


How “right” should the science in science fiction be?

This is one of those questions that tends to rise to the surface every so often, and then sinks beneath the waves again, after a lot of turbulent discussion. I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself, but, hey, we all like a good argument every now and then, right?

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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.

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