The Science of The X-Files: The Real-Life Biology of Parasitic Ice Worms from Outer Space

Tuesday, 12 January 2016 - 5:35PM
Space
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Tuesday, 12 January 2016 - 5:35PM
The Science of The X-Files: The Real-Life Biology of Parasitic Ice Worms from Outer Space
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."

A common trope in science fiction, and in more than one episode of The X-Files, for that matter, is infection from alien parasitic organisms. But could this type of infection ever happen in real life? If extraterrestrial organisms traveled to Earth, what is the likelihood that they could latch onto humans as a source of sustenance?

When we think of extraterrestrial life forms, we generally imagine them to be somewhat similar to us, or at the very least, composed of the same building blocks of life. If the alien bacteria came from a rocky, somewhat Earthlike planet, then they could potentially be pathogenic to humans, but the likelihood would be the same as the likelihood that any one terrestrial species is dangerous, which is very small. There are millions of species of bacteria, and only a tiny, tiny fraction of them have harmful effects on humans. 

But since we have no idea where to find alien life yet, there's every chance that it will be nothing like anything we could imagine. 
Opening quote
"If alien life-forms were unrelated to terrestrial life, could they still be harmful?" Simon writes. "This would depend on the biochemistry of the organism (and whether they have ray guns)."
Closing quote

Simon cites the example of the worms in the first season episode, "Ice," which closely paralleled the plot of the film The Thing. In this episode, Mulder and Scully discover alien organisms that are preserved in an ice core, surrounded by a high concentration of ammonia. This development is based in real science, as many astrobiologists believe that aliens with wildly different composition from Earth organisms may hail from a planet with an ammonium-soaked atmosphere. As a substance composed of polar molecules, ammonia can essentially take the place of water as life-sustaining liquid, but only in organisms that can live in a very cold environment. Ammonia evaporates at room temperature, so any planet with large amounts of liquid ammonia would be much colder than Earth.

Opening quote
"Mulder is correct in stating that if the worm's planet had an ammonium atmosphere, it would have to be a frigid place. Based simply on outside temperature, the worm would feel right at home in the ice of northern Alaska.
Closing quote

If this were plausible in real life, then we could potentially expand our search for alien life to many, many more exoplanets. Astronomers normally focus their search on planets that are in the "Goldilocks zone," or at a distance from their star at which liquid water can exist, but if if life could exist on colder planets than Earth, the Goldilocks zone would be all but irrelevant.

Opening quote
"Could life develop on a planet with an ammonium atmosphere? Where water is scarce and liquid ammonia is abundant? Possibly."
Closing quote

It is theoretically possible for ammonia-based life to develop, although it would look very different from water-based life on Earth. Photosynthetic organisms would use the sun's energy to convert ammonia into nitrate, rather than water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars. Microbes would then evolve that would feed on these photosynthetic microbes, which could lead to the advent of eukaryotes. These creatures would probably be carbon-based, like us, but they would eat foods rich in nitrate and breathe in nitrogen rather than oxygen. 

So all in all, the worms from "Ice" could very well exist, with one notable qualification: they could never infect humans (which would sort of defeat the purpose of the episode). Just as ammonia is toxic to water-based life, water would be toxic to ammonia-based life, which means that the water in the human body would kill these worms instantly. 

Opening quote
"The worms from the episode, 'Ice,' if they originated on an ammonium-soaked world, would be poisoned by water long before they ever reached the brain. No creature from an ammonia-based planet could ever be a parasite of a water-based organism."
Closing quote

(Does this somehow legitimize those stupid water-phobic aliens in Signs? Game-changer.)

Also in this series:

The Science of The X-Files: Can Extraterrestrial Life Survive a Trip to Earth on a Meteorite?

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

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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