The Science of The X-Files: Could Extraterrestrials Use Bees to Proliferate an Alien Virus?

Monday, 18 January 2016 - 4:06PM
Alien Life
Monday, 18 January 2016 - 4:06PM
The Science of The X-Files: Could Extraterrestrials Use Bees to Proliferate an Alien Virus?
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 X-Files episode "Herrenvolk," Mulder and Scully discover that the government conspiracy is cataloging citizens using their smallpox vaccinations, as part of the alien Colonists' plan to infect the unsuspecting populace with the Black Oil virus using aggressive Africanized bees who feed on genetically engineered corn that carries the virus. Since this is the cornerstone of the X-Files mythology, there was a lot of consideration of the real-life science behind the scenes. But even so, how much of the Colonists' plan was ultimately pseudoscience?

First, the smallpox eradication program implemented by the government was, in fact, real (although it wasn't used to tag us for alien annihilation, as far as we know). English physician Edwin Jenner demonstrated the effectiveness of a cowpox vaccination to protect people from smallpox in 1796, and the disease was eradicated over the course of the next century, with vaccinations continuing in many areas well into the 1970s in order to prevent reintroduction of the illness.

But then, of course, there's the issue of "tagging" people with smallpox vaccinations, which is apparently just as far-fetched as it sounds:

Opening quote
"Chris Carter and I had long discussions about the science of this episode," Simon writes. "Chris called me in June 1996 with the following question: How can you 'tag' someone with their smallpox vaccination?

"This was a tough question because, frankly, you can't tag anyone with a vaccination. Since this was not the answer Chris wanted, I suggested implanting a computer chip. Already done that, Chris replied."
Closing quote

Luckily, Simon had speculative alien technology to work with, and came up with a relatively plausible explanation. Her answer: extremely advanced aliens figured out a way to inject the cowpox virus in a predetermined, distinctive pattern that would serve as a "bar code" for each person. (In real life, the virus wouldn't remain in the human body long enough to be present when the X-Files episode took place in the 90s, but we'll ignore that for now.) 

Opening quote
"The 'bar code' imparted by the injected virus, somehow still present after all these years, cannot be seen with the naked eye for the virus 'ink' is far too small. However, the location of the virus can be visualized by using a very real scientific technique with the tongue-twister name of immunohistochemical staining."
Closing quote

Immunohistochemical staining is much less complicated than it sounds, as it essentially involves visualizing antigens by combining fluorescent dyes with anitbodies that will attach themselves to the antigens, thereby "tagging" the virus and revealing the pattern created by the aliens. This isn't "realistic," of course, since it requires nearly unimaginable alien technology, but it's based in the sort of pseudoscience on which sci-fi thrives.

One part that is entirely real, however, is the amino acid sequence that flashes on Agent Pendrell's computer screen, which was the sequence of a real cowpox virus protein.

Opening quote
"Why this anal attention to scientific accuracy, especially in light of a rather preposterous way of tagging people? Because I knew that scientists are big X-Files fans."
Closing quote

If it sounds far-fetched that anyone would freeze-frame when the virus comes on, copy it down, and use the internet to determine whether it's a real amino acid sequence, it isn't. (I guess we can never underestimate the dedication of fans, especially in the age of Reddit.) 

Opening quote
"A few weeks after 'Herrenvolk' aired, a friend who teaches at Indiana University (and who did not know about my connection to The X-Files)... told me how he had used the X-Files episode to teach his class about immunohistochemical staining... He also decided to show the class that it couldn't possibly be the sequence of the protein it was supposed to be--having little faith that the show would go through the effort of using a real sequence. He demonstrated to his students how to... search the protein sequence database. To his astonishment, the protein was exactly what the episode said that it was. My friend said both he and his class were speechless."
Closing quote

There's another small problem with the Colonists' plan: bees don't generally transmit diseases to humans. It is, in fact, possible to make pollen that contains the virus; since a virus is essentially just a "bag of genes," splicing the plant's genome with the virus's could cause a self-contained virus to replicate in the pollen of the plant. And while bees don't transmit diseases, it is theoretically possible for their stingers to contain traces of a virus if they came in contact with transgenic crops, so this isn't 100% impossible.

Except, there's one last problem: bees don't pollinate corn. Corn are pollinated by the wind, while bees prefer flowering plants.

Opening quote
"Corn was chosen by Chris for its imagery; can you imagine the drama of Mulder and Scully being chased through a field of rosebushes or daisies? And it's not as much of a stretch as all that; although bees don't pollinate corn, bees find corn pollen to be very tasty and have therefore been found with corn pollen on their bodies."
Closing quote

I don't know, I would have loved to see Mulder and Scully chased through a field of pretty but evil flowers, it would have been very Wizard of Oz, but cornfields are a classic alien trope, so we'll let it slide.

Also in this series:

The Science of The X-Files: Evil Eves and the Dangers of Human Cloning

Alien Conspiracy Probably Wasn't a Hoax" href="http://www.outerplaces.com/science/item/10919-the-science-of-the-x-files-why-the-alien-conspiracy-probably-wasn-t-a-hoax" target="_blank">The Science of The X-Files: Why the Alien Conspiracy Probably Wasn't a Hoax

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

Earth on a Meteorite?" href="http://www.outerplaces.com/science/item/10874-the-science-of-the-x-files-can-extraterrestrial-life-survive-a-trip-to-earth-on-a-meteorite" target="_blank">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

The Science of The X-Files: Alien Acidic Blood and the Real-Life "Toxic Lady"
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