Astronomy Science Fiction: Now with Biology!

When the subject of science in science fiction comes up, it seems like many people immediately think of physics and astronomy and, of course, astrophysics. That's not particularly surprising - from its early beginnings SF has featured exploration of other planets, stars and the vast spaces between them.

The short story anthology Diamonds in the Sky is an excellent continuation of that tradition. Edited by science fiction writer and astronomer Mike Brotherton, and funded in part by the National Science Foundation, each story in the anthology features a particular aspect of astronomy and includes an afterword about the science. And, being biased towards my own science background, it's nifty that several of the stories have some biology in them too.

So here are links to those stories, with a wee bit about their relevance to bioscience.

The Moon is a Harsh Pig by Gerald M. Weinberg
Astronomy topics: Phases of the Moon, Misconceptions about Astronomy
Biology topic: Effect of the moon on behavior.
Additional reading: Pull of the Moon: Tales of the Moon's effects on animal behaviour are not just moonshine"

Jaiden's Weaver
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Astronomy topic: Planetary Rings
Biology topic: life on a ringed planet

Squish by Daniel M. Hoyt
Astronomy topic: The Solar System
Biology topic: Uploading consciousness into new bodies.
Additional reading: my old post on Charlie Stross's short story "Lobsters" (which also has a bit of astronomy)

Approaching Perimelasma by Geoffrey A. Landis
Astronomy topic: Black Holes
Biology topic: Effect of black holes on the body
Additional information: Neil DeGrasse Tyson on "Death by Black Hole" (YouTube)

To read all the stories, download the Diamonds in the Sky anthology.

Image from Alexander Jamieson: 'A Celestial Atlas Comprising a Systematic Display of the Heavens in a Series of Thirty Maps' (via BibliOdyssey)

Genetics of Heroes

Before I start my rant, I'd like to note that I enjoy watching Heroes. I'm a sucker for stories with seemingly ordinary-joe protagonists who have to both come to terms with their new abilities and are unexpectedly sucked into adventure and intrigue. I also think there should be more TV shows that feature sexy and intelligent geneticists. What annoys me about the show is the human genetics/evolution wrapper to the story.

First a bit of background. Chandra Suresh is arguably one of the most important characters in the series, even though he dies before the first episode. As a genetics professor in India, he studied people with extraordinary abilities and came up with a "crazy idea" to explain their origin. He published his hypothesis in a book called Activating Evolution. His obsession cost him his professorship, but he chose to move to New York and work as a cab driver to continue his research. He is killed as he is driving his taxi, and his son Mohinder, who also happens to be a geneticist, takes over his father's work. The first tie-in graphic novel, Monsters (pdf), tells the Suresh family's story.

When Mohinder comes to New York, he discovers his father had assembled a map showing where all the people with superpowers ("extraordinaries") live. The episode before last he explained to an FBI agent how it was assembled: the map shows individuals his father discovered have a "shared genetic marker" and they were "mapped and tracked by the human genome project". In the last episode, Mohinder gives a similar explanation to Nathan Petrelli: the people with special powers all "carry the same gene marker".

That's when I started shaking my fist at the screen (metaphorically) and exclaiming that the plot device makes no sense to me. Let me explain why.

1. All of the "extraordinaries" carry the same genetic marker with a different DNA sequence.
When the creators were asked about the "genetic marker", they confirmed that all of the people with superpowers carry a single unique stretch of DNA.

The show has mentioned a "genetic marker" several times. Is this something found in a person's DNA, is it a formula that takes into account other factors, or something else entirely?

As far as we know right now, there is an arrangement of start and stop codons that our people have that indicates their potential for having an ability. And so far everyone on the list seems to have that marker. But that may be just one piece of the puzzle.
First off, we need to figure out what is meant by a "genetic marker". In the simplest terms, a genetic marker is a segment of DNA whose inheritance can be tracked. Based on the what the creators have said, the superhero marker is a gene that encodes a protein, since it has a "start codon", which is a sequence of three bases that tells the protein-making machinery in the cell where code for the protein sequence begins, and a "stop codon" which tells the machinery where the code for the protein ends.

What we don't know is whether the gene is unique to the "extraodinaries" or if it's a variant of a gene even "normals" carry. However, in the last episode, Mohinder explains that Pete Petrelli can take on other's powers by "resequencing" of his DNA . So there is a common genetic marker, but the exact DNA sequence varies from individual to individual, and that DNA sequence is what gives our heroes supernatural powers. That suggests to me that the genetic marker is actually a new human gene, with a variety of alleles. The addition of new genes is a process termed horizontal gene transfer, and can be caused, for example, by the incorportation of genetic material from bacteria or viruses into humans (technical article: Belshaw et al. 2004) or by genetic engineering. I assume the series will eventually explain how this genetic marker appeared in unrelated people all over the world.

So what's my problem? I can suspend disbelief and accept that there is a gene that allows characters to defy the a law of physics - that's the premise of the story, after all. But it's harder to believe that there is a gene that gives people the ability to defy the laws of nature in different ways - one person can time travel, another can fly, another can heal any wound, and yet another can read minds. Young Micah appears to have inherited the gene, but his skill (controlling electronics) has nothing to do with the powers of his mother (split personality with superhuman strength) or his father (ability to pass through solid objects). If there is going to be a "scientific" explanation, why can't there be some logic to it?

2. The people who carry the genetic marker were found using the Human Genome Project.

When Mohinder claimed the Human Genome Project (HGP) was used to "map and track" the individuals carrying the unique "genetic marker", I think I actually cried out WTF!. The creators of the show apparently think everyone's DNA is freely available for analysis:

And when will we find out what factors are entered into the program that will generate a list like that? Did Mohinder's father have access to a huge DNA database?

Human Genome project. Genetic Migration databases. W.H.O. access points. These are all public databases for researches working in genetics.

Perhaps Heroes takes place in an alternative universe where the HGP actually has the genomic DNA sequence of every person in the world , but in the universe we live in that isn't even close to reality. The sequences released by the HGP are actually a composite of 24 different individuals, so analyzing that data alone wouldn't help you locate a genetic marker that is found in only a small number of people. Of course Chandra Suresh could have used data from the HGP as a starting point to map the superpower gene, but he would have had to collect samples and sequence the DNA from "extraordinaries" himself. Perhaps a maverick geneticist who is apparently a pariah at his university for his unorthodox scientific views would be able to convince strangers from all over the world that he should analyze their DNA, but I find it extremely unlikely.

OK, even if I buy the premise that a unique genetic marker that confers a variety of superpowers suddenly appears in people all over the world, and is discovered by a lone geneticist, it still leaves leaves the aspect of the Heroes "science" backstory that irritates me the most:

3. The superpower genetic marker has something to do with evolution.
This comment by producer/director Greg Beeman illustrates exactly what is wrong with Heroes' take on evolution:
What is your favorite part of the Heroes concept?

The exploration of human beings evolving 'of humanity going to the next level of evolution and the 'how, why, why now' questions that stirs up.
OK, here's the problem: there are no "levels" of evolution. Evolution has no direction. It's no wonder that Chandra Suresh's colleagues dismissed his ideas after he published the book Activating Evolution; his hypothesis that the superpower mutation has created an advanced "evolved human" demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of basic evolutionary biology.

That's not to say that humans have stopped evolving. Even now the human population is slowly changing. Here's the thing: unless the superheroes out-breed us "normals" (or kill us all off) their special genetic marker will never exist in more than a tiny fraction of the population.

I suspect our heroes are more likely an evolutionary dead end than the future of humanity. Nonetheless, I'll be watching when Monday rolls around.

For more on the similar topic, see the "Evolution and X-Men II" powerpoint presentation from "When Good Biology Goes Bad at the Movies.

Parasites That Control Behavior

Sometimes real science is stranger than fiction. Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky describes a number of examples of parasites or infectious microbes that modify behavior in a Scientific American review article titled "Bugs in the Brain" (pdf)*. Some examples from the review and recent scientific literature:

• The rabies virus increases saliva production and makes the infected host aggressive. When a rabid animal bites a host the virus is spread via saliva in the wound.

Toxiplasma gondii causes infected rodents to specifically lose their inborn aversion to cat pheromones. This behavior is beneficial to toxiplasma, because it sexually reproduces in cats that have eaten infected mice and rats (original article). Infected cats in turn spread toxiplasma through their droppings. People infected with toxiplasma also exhibit behavioral changes, particularly a decrease in "novelty seeking". It's been proposed that toxiplasma infection has actually changed human culture, since there is a correlation between countries with a high rate of toxiplasma infection and increased neuroticism, uncertainty avoidance, and "masculine" sex roles.

• Grasshoppers infected with the hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii become more likely to jump into water where the hair worm reproduces. The parasite essentially makes its host suicidal to further its own reproduction.

• Some trematodes that infect the brackish water crustacean, gammaridean anthropod cause changes in behavior that make the hosts more likely to move towards light and exhibit aberrant "suicidal" evasive behaviors. These behavioral changes make the infected crustacean more likely to be eaten by birds, which the trematode uses as a host for the next stage in its life cycle (pdf).

• Plasmodium, the cause of malaria, affects both its mosquito and animal hosts. Mosquitoes that drink plasmodium-infected blood initially become more cautious about finding another victim, giving plasmodium time to replicate. Once the plasmodium is infective, mosquitoes become more likely to bite more than one person in a night, and spend more time drinking blood. In turn, once a person is infected with plasmodium, he become more attractive to mosquitoes, continuing the life cycle of the parasite. (See "Malaria Parasite Makes You More Attractive (To Parasites)" New York Times, August 9, 2005). Plasmodium can also affect the nervous system. Infection of juvenile canaries with plasmodium affects the song control pathway in the brain, resulting in simpler songs as adults. (Pubmed).

Of course this research is fertile ground for science fiction. Parasites are often used as a crude form of brain control; the brain-controlling parasites in The Wrath of Khan or the brain slugs in Futurama, are examples of this.

Personally, I prefer microbes with more subtle and interesting behavioral effects. An example of such a story is David Brin's, "The Giving Plague", in which a virus that causes altruism infects the human population. You can read "The Giving Plague" on David Brin's web site.

What other influences might parasites and microbes have had on the human species? For speculation on the possible effects of retrovirus infection on human evolution, see Couturnix's musings on Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children, asking "Did a virus make you smart?".

The possibilities are really endless.

* For a more technical review, see Thomas et al. "Parasitic manipulation: where are we and where should we go?" Beav. Proc. 68: 185-199 (2005) (pdf)

(For cool photos, check out the CDC's parasite image library.)