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.