Posts Tagged ‘anne simon (science advisor)’

[Unknown]: X-Files: Science Fact or Fiction?

X-Files: Science Fact or Fiction?
Kristen Philipkoski and Brad King

This Sunday, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully hang up their badges after nine tumultuous years on the The X-Files, where the dynamic duo helped thwart a government conspiracy to help aliens recolonize the Earth, oftentimes at great personal peril.

Every other week, in fact, the pair were getting knocked around, kidnapped, bushwhacked and downright messed up by aliens trying to create a slave race of human-alien hybrids.

Right, OK. No problem. Assuming that aliens ever landed, maybe that could happen, considering the quantum leaps in science over the last decade: sequencing the human genome, cloning animals and developing the first round of genetic medicine.

But surely series creator Chris Carter was pushing the bounds of science, right? Frankly, that’s the only way we’ve been able to sleep at night, believing it was all some science fiction nightmare.

Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true, according to Frank Spotnitz, an executive producer for the last eight years, who walked us through the show’s plot.

Spotnitz explained that on the show, the government conspiracy began in 1947, when a spaceship landed in Roswell. The aliens were coming back home after a brief respite in space to avoid the ice age that covered the Earth millions of years ago. They were happy we kept the planet warm, but they wanted the Earth back.

This time, to take over the planet, they had brought a little weapon called the black oil virus, which invades the human body. The virus not only allows aliens to control an infected person, but also implants an alien fetus in the human. Anyone who’s seen Alien knows that doesn’t end well for the host. As if that’s not enough, the aliens also want to create a race of human-alien hybrids to do all their dirty work.

So they start to experiment, hoping to find a way to engineer “worker people.”

Here’s the kicker. If we run across aliens some day and they are DNA-based critters, scientists believe that cross-species hybridization could happen. Certainly lots of mice are running around with human genes, engineered as test subjects for potential human drugs.

However, there is another way to create a hybrid race, called chimerism, which is a process of combining embryos from two species to create a brand new one.

“The cells of the species then cooperate with each other to form an organism that hasn’t existed before,” said Stuart Newman, a New York Medical College professor of cell biology and anatomy.

Although he doesn’t have plans to make one, Newman has filed a patent application on his own chimera: the “humouse.”

Scientists have purposely developed “geeps” — sheep crossed with goats. And they say they’ve learned quite a bit about human and animal development from these chimeras.

But all that genetic manufacturing is a royal pain, as anyone who has ever tried to create a hybrid race of human-alien slaves knows. So, our alien visitors developed the black oil virus.

In The X-Files universe, humans have both a human genetic program and an alien one. The black oil virus can flip a “gene switch” to turn off the human program and turn on the alien one.

“The idea was that this virus inside this black slime would actually get into the cells, inactivate the human program and start the alien one,” said Anne Simon, a virologist, University of Maryland professor and scientific adviser for the show.

Simon, who wrote the book The Real Science Behind the X Files, was inspired to come up with the idea of a genetic switch by the large amount of so-called junk DNA in humans. Only about 1.5 percent of human DNA is made of actual genes that have a known function, and the rest is relatively mysterious — or even alien.

Like the appendix of genes, junk DNA doesn’t have any recognizable uses. Which isn’t to say science won’t one day unravel that mystery. However, Simon said that the black oil virus could essentially re-sequence junk DNA to create new, alien genes within living humans.

“Viruses are able to do a lot of fascinating things,” she said. “They can activate and inactivate genes, integrate into the genome, shut down the manufacturing of all the host proteins.”

On The X-Files, the black oil virus and the hybridization tests laid the groundwork for colonization. Mulder and Scully continually come face to face with the Syndicate, a group of rich white dudes helping the aliens in exchange for their freedom. Mulder nearly buys the farm several times, but Scully — poor Scully — she can’t buy a break.

Scully is abducted in 1994. Once captured, she is subjected to experiments that render her unable to have children. Her eggs are harvested so the aliens can try to create hybrids. But that’s not the end of Scully’s problems.

She’s eventually stung by a nasty swarm of bees that carry the black oil virus. The bees picked up the virus from pollen, which the aliens engineered.

Frighteningly, this would be a piece of cake for any virologist.

“Expressing a virus in plant pollen would not be a problem,” said Simon.

Once she’s infected, Scully is kidnapped and put into a cryogenic freeze where the alien baby inside her can grow. But Mulder rescues her and kills that nasty alien baby. Afterward, Scully is chilly, but fine. Except she’s sterile.

Nothing is ever as it seems on The X Files. The aliens weren’t quite finished with her. Soon, she’s pregnant.

Before childless women putting off parenthood until the last possible moment rejoice, they should be reminded: First, Scully is a TV character. Second, fertilization technologies are improving, but even they couldn’t help someone whose eggs have been completely depleted by aliens.

In fact, several fertilization experts have recently warned women not to wait too long to try having children because the fertilization techniques might not be as good as they hope.

Aliens, however, have the fertilization game down. When little William — Scully’s baby — starts levitating his toys and the meteorites that mysteriously appear in his dresser drawer, it’s pretty clear he’s no regular baby.

This is where we leave our hero and heroine, heading into their final small-screen adventure, with a baby that could be not entirely human, a mysterious black oil virus possibly floating around the universe and some honked-off aliens.

“I’m very sad that this is the last episode,” Simon said. “The life of a professor, as fun as that is, is always in need of some comic relief — and this certainly provided some.”

Sure. Alien invasion. Comedy. Sleep well.

Written By: A Viral Inspector: The science advisor to Chris Carter’s The X-Files takes no credit

Written By
A Viral Inspector: The science advisor to Chris Carter’s The X-Files takes no credit
Richard Stayton

By Anne Simon, Ph.D. (as told to Richard Stayton)

This is Chris’ show. He writes it. He’s the creative force behind it. All I do is help with the science. I’ve occasionally gotten some of my original ideas on the show, but the most is a line, and it’s up to him to use it or not. He’ll call me and say, “How can I tag someone with their small pox vaccine?” I didn’t come up with tagging someone with small pox vaccine. He did. I just gave him some science.

I always say, “Oh, just e-mail it to me. Let me look at it first, and I’ll make sure that the science is correct.” But it’s his storyline. His story. His idea. He writes the scripts. All I do is help a friend.

It’s because of my dad [writer Mayo Simon]. I’m very sensitive to how little control that you have in Hollywood and how upset my dad got when people were taking credit for things that he had written. And in science we really don’t like it when people take credit for our ideas, and we’re very careful to attribute things in science. We’re careful about what we’ve done and what we have not done. I understand the pain that writers go through.

When people take credit for your writing, it’s terrible. You’ll have this wonderful movie, and who gets the credit? It’s the director who did it, and it’s the actors who did it, and who mentions the writers? And it’s ridiculous. It’s the writer who did it. The director is just going from the script, and the actors are just doing what the director says that’s in the script. I grew up with that.

During my book tour, I’d make reporters swear that they would not say that I wrote for the show. “I’m a science advisor,” I’d tell them, “I help with the science.” They end up writing, “She writes for The X-Files.” And I think, My God! I know what my dad would think. So I began the interviews by saying, “You’re a writer. You know what it would be like if somebody took credit for your writing. Well, think about how I feel when people write that I am doing the writing and providing the creative ideas behind what somebody else is doing.”

Contacts and Connections

When I was much younger and living with my parents in Pacific Palisades, Chris’ wife was a friend of my dad’s. So Chris was over at Thanksgiving, Passover, the usual affairs. I got to know him as a really cute surfer, which was what I thought of him. He was gorgeous: blond and always tan. I didn’t think about him as a writer at all. His wife was the writer.

Then when I got my assistant professorship at the University of Massachusetts, I didn’t really think about Chris until five years later. I was going through the TV Guide, seeing if there was anything on, and I read this description for this show on Fox: two FBI agents investigating cases of the paranormal. I like science fiction, and I thought this could be a really interesting show, especially because it describes the woman as a medical doctor and scientist. I was watching the show every week, and about halfway through the first season I get this call from my mother and she says, “Do you know that Chris has a new show called The X-Files?”

Chris is a real fan of science. In another life he would be a scientist.

Once I had corrected a script. But I said, “Do you realize this term is incorrect? Do you want to have it wrong in the script?” He said, “Yeah, it’s more conversational.”

Chris and I discussed whether or not you could have virus in pollen. I said, “Sure, I could do it. It would have been tricky. But you can do pretty much anything.” So he sends me this film script. And I’m number 10 to see it because the scripts were all numbered. Our names stamped on every page. Mine was spelled incorrectly. I got to look at my incorrect name on every single page.

I’m reading the script, and Chris starts talking about how the virus gets into a person and turns into this horrible alien organism. Chris’ idea was that the virus was the original inhabitant of the planet. But when I’m reading it, it’s like the virus turns into this horrible creature. And he’s describing the big black eyes of the virus. And I’m going, “Oh my god!” I work on viruses. Viruses can’t turn into anything. If a virus turns into something, it’s not a virus. I was really horrified. So I read the rest of the script, and I came up with a different science that would only change a few conversations, but it would change the idea of what the virus was. And I had my fingers crossed that he’d go for it. If Chris wanted that virus to turn into something, he would’ve done it whether I wanted it to or not. But he loved the new idea: The virus integrates itself into the DNA of the person. That’s what a lot of viruses do, activate a resonant program in the cell. There’s a program in all our cells, in our DNA that starts with that single egg and turns us into a person. And that’s encoded in our genes, in our genetic makeup.

The problem is that there’s a huge amount of DNA we don’t have a clue about. There’s a whole lot of DNA that we call junk DNA. We don’t have a clue what this junk DNA is doing. My idea was the virus activates a resonant program in the junk DNA, and that the junk DNA is actually there to turn a cell into the horrible creature, which means that we are the aliens.

Once Scully was so upset when she had this horribly deformed baby that she accidentally misspoke and called the illness an autozomal dominant disease when it’s really an autozomal recessive disease. There’s a huge difference because if it’s dominant, the parent had to be dead at birth. And that can’t happen if you’re talking about the baby, so obviously you can’t get around that. But there are some people who nitpick and say, “The writer obviously made this bad mistake here.” But I say, “So what? Writers aren’t scientists. I see plenty of mistakes in grant proposals from professional scientists.” It’s not my job to sit here and go through the problems. These are not scientists. They do a terrific job of making the science look real, and occasionally there’s a little problem. So what.

Anne Simon, Ph.D., is Professor and Associate Head of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Real Science Behind The X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants.

Sci-Fi Flix: Simon Says Science

Sci-Fi Flix: Simon Says Science
[Anne Simon]
Melissa J. Perenson