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.

orange_spring_mound_at_mammoth_hot_springs

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.

journal.pone.0176555.g003

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.

Book review: “Family Trade” by Charles Stross

A readable parallel worlds fantasy/SF, despite an obvious plothole of a journalist turning into a competent assassin overnight.  A plausible description of industry journalism, a female protagonist, a romance with a tall blonde Roland.

Капиталистическое решение “проблемы Трудно быть богом“: не вывозить художников и учёных, погрязших в Средних Веках, а разработать экономическую программу замены оных веков на промышленную революцию через отдельно взятую компанию на основе изученного в Гарварде.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The eminent contemporary SF writer K.S. Robinson books are more miss (The Years of Rice and Salt2312) than hit (Mars trilogy, Science in the Capital trilogy) for me. But the hits are so good, that I’m willing to try anything by him. His latest book about a  generation ship, “Aurora” is a sort of hit, just like Galileo’s dream.

“Aurora” falls in a SF  Goldilocks zone. It has just enough action, just enough details, just enough of plot twists,  just enough of diverse real world science to be educating as well as entertaining. The unusual narrator is a plus, as wells as a female protagonist, Freya, and her mother, Devi, who is “the closest the ship had to a captain.” The protagonist doesn’t have a classical love interest, which is also a plus in my opinion. If a cannot warm up to a sketchy, pessimistic Devi that never develops any deep relationships, it probably reflects my indoctrinated mind.

(contains spoilers)

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Dr Moreau and universal human rights

To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile. (A coloured engraving that depicts the Peterloo Massacre (military suppression of a demonstration in Manchester, England by cavalry charge on August 16, 1819 with loss of life) in Manchester, England. The banner the woman is holding should read: Female Reformers of Roynton — “Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves”). (Manchester Library Services) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Moving from the Gothic origin to the classical age of modern science fiction, it is interesting to discover allusions to the Romantics in unexpected places.

For example, in a scene in Well’s novel, Island of Dr Moreau (1896), Prendick is running away from Dr. Moreau and his assistant. The protagonist has a mistaken belief that he is in danger of being vivisected and turned into one of the Best Men. Eventually, he is cornered and makes an impassioned plea to the Beast Men, who also take part in the pursuit under the leadership of the Doctor:  “You who listen! Do you not see these men still fear you, go in dread of you? Why, then, do you fear them? You are many—” (1, Chapter 13).  The sentence is never finished, but  I hypothesize the unsaid but implied end of it.

There is a poem,“The Masque of Anarchy”(2),  by a romantic poet, P. Shelley, the husband of Frankenstein’s author, which ends:

Rise, like lions after slumber

          In unvanquishable number!

         Shake your chains to earth like dew

         Which in sleep had fallen on you:

         Ye are many—they are few!”

The poem is dedicated to the victims of Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 and written in the same year. About 60 000 people gathered for a peaceful protest demanding universal voting rights. They were attacked by the cavalry and at least 15 people died, 400 were injured. The riot was named after the anti-Napoleonic victory, Waterloo.

Therefore, despite their strange appearance and habits, Prendick is appealing to the universal humanity of the Beast Men. As a potential victim, he feels more in common with strange creatures than with two Englishmen in charge. The coming XX century will see the expansion of universal human rights in the former British empire from white men of property to white women and non-white people. Including when  the rights were not given but taken by “many” from “few”.

In fact, as I was surprised to discover, after the Peterloo Massacre proudly anti-revolutionary Britain was as close to a revolution as it would ever be. The government, presided over by the anti-reformist, pro-landowner Duke of Wellington of the Waterloo fame, gave in in the end and implemented the voting reform.

 P.S. A movie We Are Many about anti-Iraqui war protests shows that the image of them and us, them in charge, us in the right and saying about it, is popular 200 years later

Works cited:

1) G.H. Wells — The Island of Dr. Moreau,

2) P.B. Shelley —  The Masque of Anarchy