The Science of the X-Files cover file: images/x_fthumb.jpg 23k JPEG file
The Science of The X-Files


[The previous discussion examines the qualities that determine a person's flexibility, and how we might explain Tooms's flexibility.]

   Eugene Victor Tooms, a memorable oddity in "Squeeze" and "Tooms," is over one hundred years old, yet he looks only in his twenties. He enjoys making nests out of bile and newspaper, collecting trophies from his victims, hibernating for thirty years at a stretch (no pun intended), and finding that perfect liver. In addition, he's able to squeeze through some incredibly tight spots. Could Tooms's secret of flexibility, long life, and youthful appearance lie in his gourmet diet of five human livers every thirty years? The liver is the heaviest organ in the body, weighing three to five pounds in adults. Dr. Michael Field, professor of medicine and physiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the Division of Gastroenterology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center calls the liver "a biochemical factory." It aids in metabolism, transforming nutrients into forms your body can use; it stores vitamins and minerals; and it engulfs and ingests worn-out white and red blood cells, bacteria, drugs, hormones, and toxins, transforming them into harmless chemicals that are excreted through bile. The liver is a rich source of three antioxidants, which help reduce oxidative damage. Dr. Field says, "You can't live whtout a liver." Since it contains chemicals and enzymes that help to purify the blood, it might be seen as a cure-all, but the liver also contains a lot of toxins, the very toxins that it has taken out of the blood stream.
   The liver does get rid of some of these waste products and toxins through the bile, which is partially an excretory product and partially a digestive secretion. Bile has a distinctive yellow-brown color from bilirubin, a pigment released when worn-out red blood cells are broken down. The hepatic cells in the liver secrete about one quart of bile per day, which goes out through the excretory system. Tooms's bile, though, seems to be coming out of the mouth, like saliva. Kind of rude.
   You may have heard that the liver is one of the few organs capable of regeneration. A mother can donate part of her liver to her child, and in a few months the mother's liver will return to its normal size, while the child's liver grows normally as he does. This is not, however, evidence of some special regenerative power in the liver. The liver is not regenerating in the sense of replacing missing parts. It simply grows to the appropriate size for the workload placed on it. Just as your stomach will grow if you eat more, your liver will grow if it senses the need. So we can't attribute Tooms's long life span and youthful appearance to the regenerative ability of the liver.
   But if the liver does help digest food and purify the blood, wouldn’t someone with a "superliver" of some type be healthier and live longer? Dr. Field comments, "The liver is a redundant organ. You can take off half, and a person will do fine." He does admit, though, that "The bigger and healthier the liver, the more it has the capacity to defend itself against noxious stimuli."

[The discussion continues with an examination of the nutritional value of human livers, and why Tooms might be drawn to such a diet.]

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[The surrounding discussion explores whether Ed Jerse's ergot-contaminated tattoo might drive him to murder.]

   The tattoo artist is a Russian, who says he learned how to create his special red ink in prison, using rye and other grasses. Making the tattoo artist a Russian was actually a very appropriate choice. Russia has a huge prison population, and between 70-98% of Russian convicts have tattoos. Since tattooing is prohibited by the prisons, convicts have to make do with what they can find when tattooing themselves and others. One popular dye is made from mixing scorched rubber with urine. This obviously can lead to health complications, including gangrene and tetanus.

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[The surrounding discussion explores the worm discovered in "Ice," its life cycle, and how it might cause paranoia and violence in those infected. Scully believes the worm stimulates the production of acetylcholine in its human hosts. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter secreted by the hypothalamus as well as by neurons throughout the body. The book describes the effects of excess acetylcholine.]

   Is acetylcholine the most likely candidate for causing violence? Actually, the neurotransmitter that has been most closely associated with aggressive behavior is nitric oxide. At Johns Hopkins, mice were created that lacked the gene responsible for making nitric oxide synthase, an enzyme that enables cells to make nitric oxide. This neurotransmitter is found in regions of the brain believed to regulate emotional behavior. Male mice without this gene were violent and aggressive, suggesting that nitric oxide helps us keep our aggression under control, and a lack of it leads to a loss of inhibition. Females showed no such aggression. Humans are more complex than mice, but it is possible that a deficit of nitric oxide in humans could cause uncontrolled rage.

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[The previous discussion explores Scully's nasopharyngeal cancer, its symptoms, prognosis, and possible treatments, such as that given to Scully by Dr. Zuckerman in "Redux II."]

   By the way, the fluorodeoxyglucose which Zuckerman injects into Scully is not a cancer treatment but a radioactive tracer that reveals blood flow variations in the brain, which reflect metabolic activity. This radioactive tracer is picked up by a positron emission tomography scan or PET scan, one of Scully's favorite tests. The results help doctors to identify the location and extent of a tumor, and in some cases to determine whether a growth is benign or malignant.

[The discussion continues with an exploration of the possible causes of Scully's cancer.]

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[The previous discussion reviews the behavior of the black oil, particularly in "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha," and how it controls the behavior of its hosts.]

   Could such an organism control our behavior? In "Ice" we discussed the possibility of a parasite causing anxiety and aggression in its hosts. Certainly the rabies virus can cause much the same thing. In recent research, scientists have linked the Borna virus to mental disorders ranging from manic-depression to schizophrenia. Until recently, this virus was considered a rare affliction of horses in Germany. An infected horse's personality changes suddenly and dramatically, the horse hanging its head, ignoring food, walking in tighter and tighter circles--in short, displaying all the signs of depression. Most of the horses die, either from starvation or from sudden bouts of violence that drive them to run headfirst into a wall, fracturing their skulls. Scientists had believed that humans were not infected by the virus, since they showed no physical symptoms, but the virus has now been found in the brains of people suffering from mental disorders ranging from manic-depression to schizophrenia. While not all psychiatric patients have the virus, up to 30% of those suffering from depression have it, leading researchers to believe it plays an important role in mental disorders, contributing to changes in mental processes, emotions, and behaviors. The virus appears to block the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain, which is widely accepted as a cause of depression. Researchers are now studying the effects of amantadine sulfate, an antiviral drug, on psychiatric patients, with preliminary results showing incredible improvement. Tree shrews infected with the virus show even more bizarre behavioral changes. Tree shrews are normally very aggressive, spending a lot of time fighting and little time caring for their children. With the virus, they lose their aggression and lay around licking their children.

[The discussion continues with more examination of how the black oil might control us.]

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[The previous discussion in the book examines the different possible ways in which the black oil might radiate its enemies, as shown in "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha." I conclude that the organism somehow has the ability to accelerate particles to high speeds and fire them into its enemies. These high-energy particles cause the most biological damage when stopping. As they decelerate, they deposit energy into the surrounding tissues, irradiating them.]

    If the oil organism had access to extremely high quantities of energy, it could even accelerate heavy ions, which are the most damaging particles. These heavy ions are nuclei of atoms such as iron or neon with the electrons stripped off. Since these are much heavier than electrons or alpha particles, they require much more energy to be accelerated. But they also pack much more of a punch. "It's the difference between a .22 caliber bullet and a cannon ball," Dr. Matis says. At high energies, these heavy ions can penetrate a few feet of air and enter the human body. They have a sharper range curve, decelerating and stopping more abruptly, so that they cause damage over a more limited range. They would cause fewer skin burns and more internal injuries. Researchers can calculate exactly how far into a material they will cause damage. With that knowledge, they can direct a heavy ion to a specific place within a person, such as the location of a tumor. Unlike regular radiation treatments, which use gamma rays and damage both healthy and cancerous cells, the heavy ions damage a very focused area, with minimal effect to the rest of the body. Dr. Howard Matis, staff physicist at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratories, and his colleagues have used this treatment on cancer patients with strong success. The treatment, though, Dr. Matis says, is "so expensive, the medical community tends not to use it." Perhaps the oil organism would provide a more inexpensive method of administering this treatment.

[The discussion continues with an examination of how the black oil and its host might survive high levels of radiation.]

   But what if you're just a lowly human and not the organism's host? What kind of damage can it cause? In "Piper Maru," the doctor examining the sailors says they were exposed to 200-400 roentgens of radiation. The roentgen measures total exposure to radiation rather than the amount actually absorbed by the body and so is a less precise measurement of the biological damage that might result. Many factors influence how much radiation is absorbed. The doctor says there was a high rate of absorption, so we can approximate that the absorption in the tissue near the surface of the body would be about two gray (about the level someone would experience 3/4 of a mile from ground zero at Hiroshima). At this level, acute radiation symptoms begin to appear in from thirty minutes to six hours, though most don't appear until the third week after exposure. As we learned in our earlier discussion of "The Host," cells that divide rapidly, such as those in bone marrow, in lymph nodes, and those lining the gastrointestinal tract, are more sensitive to radiation and are quickly killed. This leads to a decline in the number of red and white blood cells and platelets due to the death of stem cells in bone marrow, uncontrolled bleeding, particularly in the mucous membranes, vomiting, loss of hair, fever, temporary sterility in males, infection, and burns. Radiation burns are caused by the ionization and disruption of cell membranes. It's the burns that are most striking in these episodes, yet the full radiation burns will not be apparent for ten to thirty days. At this level of radiation, up to half those exposed could die. Long-term dangers for those who survive are an increased risk for leukemia and cancer.

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[The surrounding discussion examines the viability of various methods for fighting the black cancer or black oil organism, including the Russian vaccine.]

   If the eye is as important to the organism as it seems from all the activity we witness there, new methods of delivering drugs to the eye may be helpful. Doctors are developing collagen shields for the eye. Shaped like contact lenses, these shields slowly dissolve and release medication directly into the eye. Another method involves using liposomes, fatty spheres containing medication, which we discussed in connection with "Memento Mori." These spheres would be injected into the bloodstream. When the liposomes reach the eye, a special laser aimed there breaks apart the liposomes and releases the medication. These are only methods of delivery, though. We still need a medicine to fight the black cancer. Right now, the only game in town appears to be the "vaccine" the Russians are developing.

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[The previous discussion explores the possible power source of the UFOs and why UFOs seem associated with radiation.]

   Flying a UFO can't be too safe, since so many of them have crashed. That does give us a handy opportunity to study and fly them. Could the ship still be emitting radiation after it has crashed? The government seems to take great safety precautions when they capture a UFO. "Nisei" shows technicians spraying the UFO recovered by the Talapus with something very cold like liquid nitrogen. There are no indications that the UFO is hot--no water was boiling around it, and the Talapus didn't melt beneath it--so I assume they are spraying it to somehow affect the radiation. If the liquid nitrogen was sprayed onto some circuit boards or other machinery, it's possible they would break from the cold. And if the radiation is a result of the UFO's power plant, that could turn the whole thing off, stopping the release of particles. But they seem to be spraying only the outside, and the outside seems fairly well protected--I don't see any exposed circuits--so it seems that spraying would have no effect.
   Might the mysterious white-suited men be trying to block some natural radioactivity of the spaceship's hull? If the UFO's hull is made out of radioactive material, we wouldn't have any way of stopping the radiation. Dr. Howard Matis, staff physicist at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratories, says, "If there was an easy way to change a radioactive material into another species, we would solve our radioactive waste problem. We did manage to turn mercury into gold, but it was so expensive that you wouldn't want to do it. We were very surprised, though."
   Once the retrieval team has given up on spraying the UFO, they'll want to store it. Any heavy, dense material could shield us from the radiation. Lead, uranium, boron, or concrete are effective shielding materials. Concrete is the cheapest, and is easy to work with. Storing the UFO underground would provide additional shielding. So the concrete missile silo in "Apocrypha" would provide the perfect home. If I could make a humble suggestion to the Cigarette-Smoking Man, though, instead of letting the UFO sit there, could we send a robot in to examine it? Dr. Matis points out that in his work at Los Alamos, robots were often used in highly radioactive areas.

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[The previous discussion explores how an implant might affect Scully's cancer, and how real-world implants are used to treat cancer and other diseases.]

   Another implanted device used to release drugs continuously in the system is the osmotic pump. Such a pump looks like a capsule, and is divided by a flexible membrane into an inner compartment and an outer compartment. The inner compartment contains the drug and is connected to a hole in the outer surface by a tiny tunnel. The outer compartment is filled with salt. The outer surface of the capsule is a semi- permeable membrane. Inside the human body, water flows through the semi-permeable membrane into the salt-filled chamber through osmosis, in an attempt to dilute the salt to match the concentration outside the osmotic pump. This water then compresses the flexible inner compartment, squeezing the drug out through the hole. These pumps can deliver drugs at a steady, pre-determined rate over up to four weeks. They can be implanted beneath the skin or into the abdominal cavity, or administered intravenously. At present they are used only in lab animals.

[The following discussion covers other experimental implants now in development.]

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[The previous discussion explores different implants currently in use and under development.]

   How can we create a more intimate connection between electronic and biological systems? Scientists previously believed that silicon, from which computer chips are made, would not work in biological applications. Living cells refused to grow on it. Now, though, it seems that if the surface of a silicon wafer is pierced with tiny holes so that it becomes porous, that it can be compatible with organic systems. The chemical reactions of the etching process also change the surface of the wafer from silicon to silicon oxide, which causes no harm to biological systems. Cells grow on these etched wafers, and the wafers even promote the deposit of hydroxyapatite, the main form of calcium phosphate found in human bone. Because of these properties, this new porous silicon is considered an "active biomaterial," one that can be used to augment or replace tissue or organs in the body. With a negative charge, the chip can be coated with hydroxyapatite in a few hours. By coating orthopedic implants with negatively charged porous silicon, we could encourage bones to bond with artifical joints. Research also indicates these silicon chips may help in the growth of damaged or severed nerves.
   The opposite approach is also under development. Instead of trying to make computer chips compatible with organic systems, we may make computer chips out of organic material. Scientists at the Technion Research Institute in Israel have recently shown that DNA can be used to build electronic circuits. The scientists attached single strands of DNA to two gold electrodes on a computer microchip. These gold electrodes are standard connectors on chips. The DNA strands recognized each other and connected to each other, forming a bridge between the electrodes. To allow that bridge to conduct electricity, scientists added a thin layer of silver, creating a metal wire less than half the size of the smallest wires in use. The scientists hope to follow up this success by creating a DNA transistor 100 times smaller than those in use.
   But can we influence a person's thoughts through an implant, as seems to be shown in "Patient X" and other episodes? Could we implant an image of a bridge into Scully's mind and make her want to go there? Researchers have built an artificial retina chip that may someday be implanted on the nonfunctional retinas of the blind. This microelectronic device is silicon coated, .09 inches square, powered by a tiny solar panel, and contains twenty microelectrodes that stimulate the ganglion cells on the surface of the retina, which then send signals to the visual cortex of the brain. The chip theoretically can be implanted inside the eye, glued directly onto the retina. A camera and computer mounted on a pair of glasses captures images and converts them into a fluctuating beam of laser light, which is aimed at the retina chip. The chip then stimulates the ganglion cells in a pattern that reflects the image transmitted, mapping it onto the retina. In recent experiments, fifteen blind patients were able to see dots of light, count the flashes of light, and distinguish a shape mapped out by the dots. Before the chip is actually implanted permanently into a human, safety tests must be conducted on animals.

[The discussion of implants under development continues.]

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[The previous discussion explains how scientists are working to improve software through a process very much like biological evolution, called genetic programming. Programmers create computer environments that encourage the evolution of the most efficient programs. Into these environments, scientists insert a population of simple programs that have a variety of functions. These programs are run by the computer and evaluated on the basis of how well they fulfill a pre-determined goal. The worst performers are deleted, while the best "breed," surviving and swapping sections of programming with other surviving programs. Sometimes random mutations are programmed in. Then the programs are run again, and so on.]

   Some scientists are trying to use this technique of evolving software and apply it to hardware. Chips called field programmable gate arrays, FPGAs, can be reconfigured, or rewired, over and over, following the instructions given to them by software. A software program can then be used to design a chip to do a certain task. Just as in the above example various programs are tested by the computer, here various hardware configurations would be set up and tested, the programs generating the worst designs discarded, those generating the best combined to create new possibilities. This process has been proven to work in very simple trials, but is still in the early stages of development. Hardware evolution still relies on external software to control the process. If the software could be incorporated into the chips themselves, scientists theorize, then a self-learning computer, an artificial intelligence, could evolve.

[The discussion continues with an examination of the premise in "Kill Switch," that the AI evolved intelligence on the internet.]

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Except where noted, Content © 1998 Jeanne Cavelos
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Updated June 5, 2003
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