Thursday, March 29, 2012

John Carter versus the Clone Army

The Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs is filled with technological marvels. Earthman John Carter discovers the Martians have anti-gravity "fliers", disintegrator ray weapons, and even a great factory that maintains the atmosphere of the planet.

The Martians also have advanced medicine and biological technology.  Indeed the great Martian scientist Ras Thavas - known as The Master Mind of Mars -  has perfected biotechnological techniques that are both fantastic and terrible.

Burrough's 1939 novel Synthetic Men of Mars reveals Ras Thavas's greatest achievement: a vast army of clones.
After Ras Thavas was driven from his great laboratories by Vobis Kan, Jeddak of Toonol," explained Gan Had, "he came to this island to perfect a discovery he had been working on for years. It was the creation of human beings from human tissue. He had perfected a culture in which tissue grew continuously. The growth from a tiny particle of living tissue filled an entire room in his laboratory, but it was formless. His problem was to direct this growth. He experimented with various reptiles which reproduce certain parts of their bodies, such as toes, tails, and limbs, when they are cut off; and eventually he discovered the principle. This he has applied to the control of the growth of human tissue in a highly specialized culture.
From a mass of cultured undifferentiated human cells, Ras Thavas was able to grow arms, legs and eventually whole bodies.  The "synthetic men", known as hormads, would all be genetically identical to both the original human cells and to each other, making them clones even though that term is never used.

The technology isn't perfect. Most of the synthetic men aren't very smart or physically attractive.  And left unsupervised, the process can fail horribly:
"In fact things seem to go all wrong without him," and when I reached the first vat room I realized that that was a crass understatement of fact. Things couldn't well have been much worse. The floor was covered with the remains of hideous monstrosities that the officers had had to have destroyed. The parts still lived. Legs were trying to walk, hands were clutching at whatever came within reach, heads were lying about screaming and moaning. 
A gruesome sight.

So where did Burroughs find his inspiration for Ras Thavas's mad science?  My guess is that he was influenced, at least in part, by the research of French biologist and surgeon Alexis Carrel.  In 1912 Carrel took a piece of embryonic chicken heart and placed it in a flask with nutrients. He successfully cultured the cells for decades, a feat that caught the public's imagination. In the 1930s Carrel (along with aviator Charles Lindbergh) went on to develop techniques that allowed human organs to be kept alive outside the body during surgery. This achievement was also celebrated in popular culture, with Carrel appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938.

Carrel's achievements inspired a number of writers during science fiction's "Golden Age", from Arch Oobler's 1937 radio play "Chicken Heart" in which cultured cells escape the lab and threaten to engulf the world, to the "Chicken Little" food source in  Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants.  The ever-growing human cells in Synthetic Men of Mars fits right in with these stories.

But science doesn't really play a central role in Burroughs' novels.  Instead science and technology and unusual creatures are a backdrop for the real story, which usually involves a fight (or three) and romance.  In Synthetic Men, it turns out that some of the hormads are quite intelligent, and they gather their brethren into an army in hopes of conquering the world.  The hero - in this case the Martian Vor Daj - and John Carter work together to destroy the terrible mass of tissue and hormads run amok.  And Vor Daj finds love, despite having his brain transplanted into an ugly hormad body.

You can read the rest of the story for yourself:

Project Gutenburg Australia has a copy of the Synthetic Men of Mars. If you are not in Australia, you can purchase an ebook: Kindle version ( or the Nook version (Barnes&Noble)

Further reading:
Top image: Cover of Synthetic Men of Mars, 1963 edition
Middle image: Colony of human embryonic stem cells by Ryddragyn at Wikimedia Commons. Bottom image: Fan cover of Synthetic Men of Mars by zimeta08 on DeviantArt

Monday, March 26, 2012

What do "humans" look like?

Last year, Racebending took a look at Hollywood's tendency to use white actors to depict "human appearing" aliens. While that's not true in every movie - for example Mos Def played Ford Prefect in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - non-white aliens are the exception, rather than the rule. As the article concludes:
The overall fact remains that a balanced representation is hard to spot in “human alien” films, because when aliens are written to look like us, it’s the kind of “us” that racially dominates Hollywood and controls its creative processes. Despite the use of sci-fi premises that supposedly spur the imagination to the furthest reaches of space, the narrow focus of “white by default” is still pervasive enough to ground out-of-this-world concepts with business-as-usual biases.

But it's not just aliens who are "whitewashed". When science fiction stories are turned into movies, even characters originally depicted as non-white get portrayed by white actors. Some of the more egregious examples are the SciFi Channel's adaptation of Usula LeGuin's Earthsea novels and the live action movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

So why does it matter? I think the representation of what is to be considered "normal" in popular entertainment can influence what we consider to be the norm in real life.

I think the recent tempest about the casting of the Hunger Games movie helps show why it's important to include human characters of different races. In the Hunger Games novels, the characters Rue and Thresh are described as having "dark brown skin and eyes". Given that description, it's not at all surprising that black actors (Amandla Stenberg and Dayo Okeniyi) were cast in the movie versoin those roles.

But it turns out a number of fans of the Hunger Games novels imagined the characters Rue and Thresh as white, despite their description. And those fans aren't just disappointed. They have been vocal on Twitter that depicting the characters as having dark skin made them less sympathetic and even ruined the movie for them.

And going beyond the explicit racism of many those tweets, some fans who had no problem with the casting in the movie originally imagined the characters as white, presumably because they unconsciously assume that the default human is white. That assumption is reinforced by the majority of movies and television shows.

To my mind, it only makes sense to imagine a future North America where the inhabitants have a range of skin colors and racial and ethnic backgrounds, simply because that is the case in present-day North America. Unless there is some action to eliminate or segregate humans by the color of their skin (such as the way black people were rounded up and resettled in the Handmaid's Tale), it makes no sense to depict an all white future.

And now that we have a black President, will Hollywood step up and show aliens looking who look like our leader when they say "take me to your leader!"?

(link to the Racebending post via My Sci Fi Online ; link to Hunger Games Tweets via Jezebel)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Science and SF highlights for March 25, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+Twitter , and Facebook  this week:

Free ebooks through this weekend (so download your copy now!):
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Jellyfish and immortality: would you want to live forever?

Last summer's Torchwood-goes-to-America series (more formally titled Torchwood: Miracle Day) had an interesting premise:  what would happen if people stopped dying?

Plenty of science fiction stories involves humans who have become immortal or whose lifespans are so long that they seem immortal. But unlike fictional future societies like Ian Banks' "Culture", where genetic engineering and advances in medicine have allowed humans nearly unlimited lifespans, the living in Miracle Day live despite suffering unhealed grievous injuries and unchecked diseases. People suffer and yet they live on.

The crude global death rate is about 8.4 deaths per 1000 in the population in 2009. Given a total world population of 6.7 billion that is about 56 million deaths per year or 154 thousand deaths per day.  Without death to intervene Earth's human population grows unchecked.  And many of those who survive are sick and hurt and unable to care for themselves.  The results are horrifying, as are the measures deemed necessary to stave off the possibility of overpopulation.

While Torchwood often seems closer to fantasy than SF, there is, in fact some science behind the fiction. As show writer Jane Esperson described it:
The amazing writer Bryan Fuller told the Torchwood writers room about the species of immortal jellyfish that Christina Colasanto talks about here [in Episode 8] — and we obsessed over it in the room. The idea that some creature here on Earth works in this way is amazing. That line, "Consider the jellyfish..." started echoing around the room, and here it is, in the episode. For a while, we joked that that should be the title of this episode.
The jellyfish Turritopsis nutricula is essentially immortal, as long as it doesn't get eaten or succumb to disease.

As the jellyfish matures it takes on several different physical forms. Fertilized eggs develop into planula larvae which settle on the sea floor. The larvae develop into colonies of polyps which bud off free-swimming medusa jellyfish.  When those jellyfish reach sexual maturity after a few weeks they spawn to create a new generation of jellies.

All animals are able to reproduce and create new offspring, that's not what makes Turritopsis special.  Turritopsis adults are actually able to revert back to the juvenile polyp form through a process known as transdifferentiation. This process renders the tiny jellyfish biologically immortal. See the video above for an overview.

But besides the concept of immortality that nifty bit of jellyfish biology isn't referenced in Miracle Day at all. I suppose having  Gwen Cooper, Captain Jack, and Rex Matheson revert to their juvenile forms in a sort of Torchwood babies episode wouldn't work very well. At the least it would preclude having the usual sex scenes (at least I hope it would).

Miracle Day unfortunately doesn't completely live up to its original premise. The plot is slow to develop, the flashbacks to Jack's early 20th century relationships are long, and the world-wide conspiracy that sets the Miracle in motion I found more confusing than convincing.  I think it could be much better if the 10 episodes were trimmed in half.

Torchwood: Miracle Day will be available on DVD in the US on April 3rd. You can preorder a copy at or at Barnes&Noble.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Controlling Our Creations Through Nutritional Requirements: Lessons from Science Fiction

Last week a group of over 100 environmental and watchdog organizations released a report proposing increased government regulation of synthetic biology, which they consider "extreme genetic engineering". The report calls for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until such regulations are in place. Their position is a that drastic measures are necessary to protect both the public and the environment.

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Representatives of the biotechnology industry have pointed out that synthetic biology is part of the ongoing development of genetic engineering technology that is already covered by rules and regulations. And in 2010 a presidential bioethics commission concluded that no new regulations covering the use of synthetic biology were necessary.

One concern expressed by all parties is that "synthetic" organisms could escape into the environment.Where the disagreement lies is whether current technologies are sufficient for containment.

The presidential commission's report suggests that such organisms could be designed to have limited lifespans or to be dependent on nutrients only available in the laboratory. Such biological barriers to the spread of genetically engineered organisms have been part of the earliest recommendations for safe use of recombinant DNA technology.

The groups calling for a moratorium on the development of synthetic organisms claim that such measures are likely not sufficient and further study is required to ensure that such biological barriers work outside the laboratory.

So what is the lesson that can be learned from science fiction? If creatures are unable to synthesize all the compounds necessary for their growth and sustenance - auxotrophs - can indeed be contained if their nutritional requirements are alien enough.

"Look, we're not fools. We understand these are prehistoric animals. [...]They might have no predators in the contemporary world, no checks on their growth. We don't want them to survive in the wild. So I've made them lysine dependent. I inserted a gene that makes a single faulty enzyme in protein metabolism. As a result, the animals cannot manufacture the amino acid lysine. They must ingest it from the outside. Unless they get a rich dietary source of exogenous lysine - supplied by us, in tablet form - they'll go into a coma within twelve hours and expire. These animals are genetically engineered to be unable to survive in the real world. They can only live here in Jurassic Park...."
Take, for example, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. As noted in the quoted text, they were designed to only be able to live on a diet with high levels of the amino acid lysine. Since the local plants and animals in the Park wouldn't be able to supply the necessary nutrients, they could only survive on a diet provided by their handlers. That worked, at least for a while, but the setup had a fatal flaw.

Lysine is an amino acid, one of the twenty standard building blocks of protein. If an organism cannot synthesize one or more of those building blocks in its own cells, then it must eat foods that contain those amino acids to survive.

Humans normally require nine such essential amino acids in their diet, including lysine. That means that a balanced human diet must include foods rich in lysine, such as meat or beans. And that also meant that when a few dinosaurs were able to escape their island in Jurassic Park, they were able to survive on lysine-rich crops and meats on the farms managed by the local human population.

A dietary restriction that can be easily filled by eating the local produce is not a great way to contain your engineered critter. A better approach would use a nutritional requirement that cannot be so easily filled by Earthly plants or animals.

You can find that scenario in science fiction as well. In Michael Flynn's novel Eifelheim alien travelers - Krenk - were stranded in 14th century Germany where they eventually begin to starve. One of the alien scientists explains the problem to the local priest:
"There are certain . . . materials – acids is your alchemic word–which are essential for life. Perhaps four score of these acids befall in nature–and we Krenken need one-and-twenty of them to live. Our bodies produce naturally nine, so we must from our food and drink obtain the others. That food which you have shared with us holds eleven of those twelve. One is lacking, and our alchemist found it nowhere in all the foodstuffs he proofed. Without that particular acid, there is one . . . I must call it a 'firstling', as it is the first building block of the body, though I suppose it shoudl wear one of your Greekish terms."
"Proteios,"Dietrich craoked. "Proteioi."
"So. It puzzles me why you use different 'tongues' to speak of different matters. This Greekish for natural philosophy; the Latinish for matters touching your lord-from-the-sky."
Dietrich seized the Krenk by his forearm. The rough spines that ran its length pricked his hand, drawing blood. "That makes nothing!" he cried. "What of thisprotein?"
"Without this acid, the protein cannot be formed, and lacking it, our bodies slowly corrupt."
Earth foods, it seems, don't contain the full range of amino acids essential to the Krenk diet. They try to sustain themselves by extracting the essential nutrients from their dead companions. And even so they died, because their lives depended on a diet with truly alien components.

So the science fictional lesson is to engineer organisms that require amino acids or other nutritional building blocks that found nowhere in nature if you want to make sure that they are truly unable to live outside the confines of a laboratory. And that may eventually become a reality.

Scientists have successfully been able to engineer microorganisms, animal cells, and even nematode worms  that are able to incorporate several different unnatural amino acids into their proteins. And, more recently, bacteria were engineered to incorporate a normally toxic modified nucleic acid base in their DNA. So the research looks promising.

But scientists are not yet able to create animals or plants that we can be reasonably certain would be unable to live in the wild. And life is so adaptable, there may always be the possibility that biological containment will ultimately fail.

So the question remains whether escaping organisms represent a high enough danger to the environment that current research should be more tightly regulated or put on hold. Or do the potential benefits of synthetic biology - novel sources of energy, more effective drugs, improved crops - outweigh the risks? I'm hoping for the latter.

Background reading:

Top image: The bacteria Shewanella putrefaciens use chemical signals to coordinate biofilm formation and other community-level behaviors. [Credit: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.]

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Science and Science Fiction Link Roundup March 18, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+Twitter , and Facebook  this week:

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vonda McIntyre on the inspiration for Dreamsnake

I was doing a bit of YouTube surfing and stumbled onto this video clip of Vonda McIntyre winning the 1979 Hugo Award for her novel Dreamsnake.  In her acceptance speech McIntyre acknowledges Avram Davidson, which made me curious what role he played in the story's genesis.

Dreamsnake, if you haven't read it (and you should), is set on a future Earth which has been laid to waste by nuclear war. Despite the widespread devastation, future humans have developed advanced biotechnology.  The story follows the adventures of a healer named Snake, who travels from community to community using her genetically engineered snakes to treat the sick and hurt.

Fortunately for my curiosity, McIntyre has explained the story-behind-the-story in an afterword to Dreamsnake posted at the Book View Cafe.  Avram Davidson was the writer in residence at the Clarion West writer's workshop.  In a session he was leading, Davidson wrote words on slips of paper that the workshop participants drew from a cup.  One of the words McIntyre drew was "snake" and one of her fellow students suggested that she create a main character named "Snake".  The other elements of the story eventually fell into place:
Finally, during Terry Carr's week as writer in residence, I realized that a serpent named Grass should have hallucinogenic venom. The idea came from out in the ozone (or maybe the back 40 again), and my only excuse for not realizing it sooner is that during the 1960s I was a science geek.
[. . . ]
The next day the story got a pretty good reception, though the class snake expert and boa constrictor owner said that even genetic engineering would not excuse a venomous python. Never mind, I said, it's too heavy to carry, I'll make it a cobra.
The finished novellette "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" won a Nebula award in 1974. The story was later expanded into the novel Dreamsnake which won both Nebula and Hugo awards.

It's cool to see what can develop from a single word and some science geekiness!

You can read "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" for free at the Book View Cafe.

You can purchase the Dreamsnake ebook directly from the Book View Cafe. An audiobook version Dreamsnake  is available from, from Barnes&Noble icon or from the iTunes store. icon.

(thanks to Cheryl Morgan posting the video clip on her YouTube channel!)

Photo:Snake 006 by cygnus921, on Flickr

Previously: Vonda McIntyre and "Of Mist and Grass and Sand"

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cloning? Genetic engineering? What should be the theme of the Sci-Fi London 48 hour filmmaking challenge?

The Sci-Fi London 48-Hour Film Challenge gives competing teams only 48 hours to film a 5 minute movie. This year's competition has a twist:  you can suggest a scientific theme for the filmmakers and possibly win two tickets to the Sci-Fi London film festival. 

Last year's winner was the-intention-of-miles (Half Baked Films) about a man using extreme means to escape his past.

The-intention-of-miles by SFLTV

I think it would be neat if this year's competition had a biological theme: cloning, genetic engineering, brain enhancement, evolution - there are lots of great options.

If you are a UK resident, why not submit a suggestion!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Link roundup March 11, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+, Twitter , and Facebook  this week:

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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Link Roundup March 4, 2012

Some of the science and SF links originally posted on Google+ Biology in Science Fiction on Google+, Twitter , and now Facebook  this week:

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