Handmaid’s Tale, S2E2

I am always on the lookout for modern biology references in pop-culture and celebrate when they are correct. In this episode of S2 of dystopia Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a flashback to  Emily/Ofglen/Ofsteven past as a ‘cellular biology professor’. A female student asks if Archaea (a nucleus less life form intermediate between lacking nucleus bacteria and eukaryotes) found in the human microbiome.

A male student arrogantly states that Archaea live in extreme environments such as hot springs, so it’s stupid to suggest that they would live on a human. Emily supports the female student by saying that Archaea do live in nasal cavities and on the skin.

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Orange Spring Mound at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Bacteria, algae and archaea create the streaks of color. (Image by Mbz1 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Amazingly, the professor’s reply is true. Archae composes a significant amount of microbiome not only of human skin and nasal cavity but of the dental plaque and gut as well.

For example, here’s a picture from an article about the composition of the human microbiome.  Catchily named Methanobrevibacter smithii  is the most abundant archeon in the human microbiome. Almost nobody investigates Archea in human microbiome as there are no known human pathogens among them. But this study shows that M. smithii is associated with constipation and gut tenderness. In a different study, it was found in larger numbers in anorexic patients. This does not mean, of course, that the archeon causes these conditions, rather that they go together.

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Reference ranges from a cohort of healthy individuals for 28 clinically relevant species and genera. Healthy participant stool microbiome data were analyzed to determine the empirical reference ranges for each target. The boxplot displays the relative abundance for each of 897 self-reported healthy individuals, revealing the healthy ranges of abundance for the taxa in the test panel. The healthy distribution is used to define the 99% confidence interval (red line). (From  Almonaides et al. (2017))

Kudos to the writers and scientific consultants of the series for providing an accurate and up to date information. Double kudos for the not-so-subtle feminist message.

 

 

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TV/Netflix series review: Orphan Black

 

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The five main clone characters all played by Tatiana Maslany (from left to right, top to bottom: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, and Rachel). Image from Wikipedia, fair use.

When it comes to biology, especially molecular biology,  TV and films usually show nonsense. One of the famous examples is King Kong – a case of 30 feet gorilla (impossible from the biophysics point of view, his bones would have shattered under the weight of the body). And the case of extreme interspecies romance based on very human male interest in buxom blondes. Rare examples of (sort of) plausible scenario include Jurassic Park – I saw an article in Nature about the plausibility of cloning mammoth. Surely, the dinosaurs can follow. NB Outbreak, which shows a few very real “how to”.Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series available on Netflix. I was very skeptical about it – its blurb talks about human cloning. I was surprised to find a very sober approach to the plot: a military program in human cloning in the 70th resulted in several identical women raised in different countries, mostly in the US. Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the US is the center of the world </sarcasm>.

The  10+ clones played by excellent Tatyana Maslyany, who is the main attraction of the series. There are no usual pseudoscience traps such as “cloning of soul” and “mind sharing”. The clones are biologically identical with underlying active character but have very different personalities depending on where and how they were raised – from a mad Ukrainian orphan Helena to a PhD in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Cosima. The deadlocked PhD student is also a lesbian, while the rest of the clones are heterosexual.

The underlying science of human cloning is plausible. Even better, the contemporary science that the PhD engages with is good as well. For example, clones suffer from genetic abnormalities that is possible to repair using stem cells. Of course, there’s an inevitable conspiracy centered on biomedical companies but it would be a dull series without whodunit and action.

I liked not only biology and action but especially the post-Soviet connection. The Western science in the 20th century for all its glory also embraced biological explanation to human differences and proposed radical solutions such as eugenics. The racism was postulated, confirmed and reconfirmed.

In the meanwhile, Soviet biological science was a part of a huge experiment of molding a new Soviet person. Conceptually it was based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioning, not Mendel‘s immutable genes. The Soviet ideology I was raised with believed that humans are products of their environment – you change the environment, you change the person. While the US was engaged in compulsory sterilization programmes for undesirables, the Soviets gave the ignorant free universal education and healthcare. While in the US black people were segregated on the basis of their inborn inferiority, Soviet Union declared the equality of races.

The traces of this eugenic and racist thinking are still there in the 21st century. Time and time again a few scientists, notably,  Nobel Prize winner,  James “DNA” Watson try to dust off racial and/or genetic inferiority theories. There’s also a recent trend to absolve people from responsibility on the basis of their genetic makeup – “my genes made me do it“. So it was very refreshing to see a pop-culture phenomenon that is subtly firmly in the “nurture plus nature” camp.

All five seasons of Orphan Balck are available on Netflix and I recommend to give it a go, it’s one of the best SF series of the decade.

 

Film Review: “What Happened to Monday”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,  this Netflix production flatters “Orphan Black”. Like in the Canadian TV series, one actress plays septuplets born in a world with “one family – one child” policy.  It’s thriller as well but considering the rate of siblings demise, I wondered how the authors going to sustain a series, not realising that’s a stand-alone “made for Netflix” movie.

The pace of “What Happened to Monday” is frantic but the story formulaic, nowhere near the depth of characters and ideas explored by “Orphan Black”.

The movie is a perfect illustration of New York Times article that is unsure if Netflix is capable of truly original production or will just copy what’s been done before.

What to watch: Zombies galore

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Poster for an early zombie movie, ‘White zombie’ (1932). Never the link between vampires and zombies was so obvious.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Just as  the popularity of Twilight series made vampires popular and produced some quality genre examples (True blood),  The Walking Dead generated  a resurgence of zombies – at least, on TV. I don’t like zombies bashing or any violence, but some of the recent theme variations a worth a try.

Recommended to me by Netflix:

iZombie: 2 seasons, 3d pending

Genre: comedy-drama/crime/horror

Splatter strength: 5/10

If  Z nation faithfully follows genre canon or cliche, iZombie subverts it. A flare-up of zombie – a result of another evil corporation’s action. The quirkiness of the series reflected in that the villain is not a not pharmaceutical but energy drink company. The flare-up doesn’t lead to an all out zombie apocalypse.

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What to watch: Between, S1 E2

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Red blood cells, erythrocytes, under a microscope. Image by Drs. Noguchi, Rogers and  Schechter via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of the Canadian/Netflix on demand series, Between season 2 became available in June. A virus kills all inhabitants aged over 21 in  a US town called Pretty Lake. The town is quarantined and the children and young adults are left to fend for themselves,  leading to a YA “Lord of the Flies”. Of course, there’s a government conspiracy, which creates an unlikely situation of supply airdrops absence.  But despite a few plot holes, The characters are compelling, the plot moves along nicely.

Unfortunately, unlike in my favorite human cloning series, Orphan Black, the science of Between is completely bogus. A scientist who sneaked into Pretty Lake with  an experimental vaccine looks at something round and red swirling on the screen (red blood cells?) and the vaccine represented by a yellow  shimmering circle around them. He says that the virus sits inside cells and eats them  from inside out, which is represented by churning and undulating cells as if an alien is trying to get out. The cells resist the virus until the 21st birthday date when boom! cells collapse and the person dies.

21 is the age of adulthood in the US when you suddenly allowed to drink, while you could marry, drive a car and join the Army before that magical date. From the biology point of view, 21th birthday is a completely arbitrary date. A  virus wouldn’t know when precisely you were born – it’s virus, not a notary. In the absence of a document, it’s difficult to even estimate a persosn’s age – people who don’t have their birth certificate pass as underage for years and a convincing fake ID would age you.

Yes, there are viruses, which cause diseases in  (mostly) children, for example, notorious mumps, measles, and rubella viruses. This apparent age specificity is caused by  children’s underdeveloped immune systems as it’s still possible to get infected as an adult if you miss the childhood infection or not vaccinated. Assuming, that it’s possible to create a virus, which targets adults, it should hit anybody who reached an age of puberty, which can vary between 10 and 20 depending on the environmental conditions.

It’s the general condition of your body that would matter to a virus, not your birthdate. We all heard about a sprightly 90 yeas old, who run marathons and know 30 y.o. who look and have the health conditions of people of twice their age.