The Science of the X-Files: Why the Alien Conspiracy Probably Wasn't a Hoax

Thursday, 14 January 2016 - 5:00PM
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 14 January 2016 - 5:00PM
The Science of the X-Files: Why the Alien Conspiracy Probably Wasn't a Hoax
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."

In the fourth season finale of The X-Files, "Gethsemane," Mulder and Scully discover evidence that the alien conspiracy was all a hoax, from Samantha Mulder's abduction to Scully's cancer, perpetrated by the government to cover up the military-industrial complex. Of course, there were five full seasons after that, which ultimately made it abundantly clear that aliens were real and working with the government, so even if the alien body discovered in "Gethsemane" was fake, it doesn't prove that the conspiracy is a lie.

But was that alien body a fake? Probably not, according to Anne Simon, as she worked closely with the writers to make the biology behind the alien believable. In the episode, a scientist working with Mulder and Scully observes the preserved cells within ice cores found near the alien body, and they were unclassifiable, as they had a mixture of plant and animal traits. Plant and animal cells have easily identifiable characteristics, so Simon speculates that the cells probably had a mixture of features like lysosomes (which appear in animal cells) and chloroplasts and a large vacuole (which are found in plant cells). When consulting with Chris Carter, Simon told him a cell that was a mixture of two organisms would be called a chimera. 

Chimerism is a phenomenon in which organisms have cells with two different sets of DNA. In humans, this is often the result of a vanishing twin, so the surviving twin contains cells with his or her sibling's DNA. (This is not to be confused with genetic hybridism, which occurs from sexual reproduction between two animals of different species.) On a cellular level, a genetic engineering process called somatic fusion allows scientists to combine two cells from different species to produce a cell with characteristics from both. Scientists have performed this process with animal cells in various experiments, but it has never resulted in a full-fledged organism like the alien body in "Gethsemane."

Kritschgau tells Mulder that the alien is a fake, that it is simply a hybrid genetically engineered by the government in order to perpetrate the alien hoax. This could be tested fairly easily by sequencing the DNA, which would uncover which terrestrial organisms made the hybrid, but unfortunately, the body is stolen before they can conduct DNA analysis. Scully points out that the chimeric cells in the ice cores found near the body support Kritschgau's claim (although the ice cores are also found to be hundreds of years old, which would make the conspiracy even more elaborate than we thought), but Mulder says the chimera cells could still be extraterrestrial.

Opening quote
"Scientifically, Mulder has a point," Simon writes. "Kritschgau's explanation that chimeric cells were used to construct the alien indicates a technology that is well beyond what science can accomplish on this planet."
Closing quote

In the follow-up episode, "Redux," Scully and her fellow scientist use a real-life test in order to see if the cells can result in a full-blown organism: placing them in a fetal bovine serum. If the cells were normal animal cells, they would start dividing through mitosis, which is the cell division process of normal body cells. But instead, they start undergoing meiosis, which in normal animals only occurs in germ cells. As a result, the cells begin to develop into a new alien organism (represented onscreen by a pluteus, a stage of development of the common sea urchin).

Opening quote
"In 'Gethsemane' and 'Redux,' as well as 'The Erlenmeyer Flask' and 'Tunguska,' aliens are not little green men or costumed monsters, but something far more sophisticated... and plausible. The aliens are cells. If we are fortunate enough to discover life on Mars or Europa, it is cells that will be brought back to Earth for study.

Aliens do not have to step out of their spaceships saying, 'I come in peace,' or blow up the White House to be worthy of our attention. I agree with Mulder. Proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life would be the greatest discovery in the history of science."
Closing quote


Also in this series:

The Science of The X-Files: Chernobyl, Genetic Hybridism, and the Science of the Flukeman

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

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

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