The Science of The X-Files: The Black Oil Virus and Pathogens That Make You Commit Suicide

Friday, 08 January 2016 - 10:29AM
Neuroscience
Friday, 08 January 2016 - 10:29AM
The Science of The X-Files: The Black Oil Virus and Pathogens That Make You Commit Suicide
It's January, X-Files fans, which means we have less than a month to wait before our favorite alien conspiracy show returns for a six-episode miniseries. The pilot (which we saw at NYCC), airs on January 24th, but until then, we're going to give you daily articles about the fascinating science behind the X-Files, courtesy of science advisor Anne Simon and her book "The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants."

The black oil virus in The X-Files- an intelligent, sentient virus that can communicate and functions as the "life force" of an alien species- probably could not exist exactly as described. But for argument's sake, could it really take over a person's mind and control their behaviors? 

Terrifyingly enough, it is entirely possible for a single-celled organism to directly affect an animal's behaviors. The parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which causes the disease toxoplasmosis, has evolved to affect their host's brain in order to force them to take actions that are conducive to the parasite's replication, even if it's counterproductive to the host's survival. They reproduce sexually in the intestines of cats, so they can infect a mouse's brain and cause it to engage in behaviors that make it more likely to be eaten by a cat. When the cat eats the mouse, the parasites are able to reproduce and complete their life cycle. 

Toxoplasmosis is a common occurrence in humans, with rates up to 95% in certain parts of the world (23% in the U.S.). While it can be serious in infected fetuses, adult humans with toxoplasmosis are often asymptomatic unless they are immunocompromised. That being said, some biologists have theorized that taxoplasmosis can have an effect on human behavior. Biologist Jaroslav Flegr has been a significant proponent of this theory, claiming that the organisms tweak the connections between neurons, changing our personalities and causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia. 

That being said, even if it is theoretically possible for a microscopic organism to cause certain behaviors, it wouldn't be able to do it by attaching to the pineal gland, which is where Scully discovers the black oil. The pineal gland has historically been touted as the "seat of the soul," particularly by philosopher Rene Descartes. But in reality, and as we've known for a long time, the pineal gland is only responsible for sexual development, and for ensuring that women get pregnant so the baby is born in spring and summer. So if the black oil did, in fact, reside in the pineal gland, it would only be able to control when and how frequently people decide to engage in mating rituals.

However, another aspect of the black oil is completely true to life: its ability to coalesce from thousands or millions of cells in order to form sluglike black worms.

Opening quote
"An organism that starts out as thousands of individual cells... and then join together to form a single, multicellular creature sounds like a nightmare made for science fiction- but it isn't," Simon writes. "Dicti slugs bear an uncanny resemblance to the larger X-Files black cancer worms."
Closing quote

Dictyostelium discoideum, or "dicti," go through an extremely strange and unnerving life cycle in which they start out as amoeba-like cells, and then when they get hungry, come together to form a multicellular organism. When the environment gets dry, the organism divides into little plantlike sticks that release spores, which starts the life cycle all over again.

Opening quote
"I vividly remember an inventive college professor giving me... petri plates with dicti amoeba cells. I took mine back to the dorm and watched spellbound as slugs mysteriously sprang up from microscopic cells and then turned into little balls and sticks. For years, I thought that if only dicti were one hundred times larger with a taste for human flesh, it would make a horrific science fiction menace."
Closing quote


Also in this series:

The Science of the X-Files: That Time Scientists Claimed They Found Extraterrestrial Life in Meteorites

The Science of the X-Files: Leonard Betts and the Science of Head Regeneration

The Science of the X-Files: How Baby Peacock from "Home" Could Actually Exist

Alien Acidic Blood and the Real-Life "Toxic Lady"" href="http://www.outerplaces.com/science/item/10804-the-science-of-the-x-files-alien-acidic-blood-and-the-real-life-toxic-lady" target="_blank">The Science of the X-Files: Alien Acidic Blood and the Real-Life "Toxic Lady"
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