A Side of Science for Your Thanksgiving Dinner

Giving Thanks
Some people say grace, some go around the table and say what they’re grateful for, others have their own traditions, but Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks. Luckily, science has proven that (no matter what the day does to your waistline) giving thanks is good for you. Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, performed a study in which they grouped participants and had them write a few sentences about each week.

  • One group wrote about things they were grateful for.
  • A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them.
  • The third group wrote about events that affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).

After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Thanksgiving Dinner
The Bird
Most Americans prefer white meat from the turkey. To meet the demand only big-breasted birds are bred. Today’s farmed turkeys have breasts so big that it’s hard for the birds to stand up straight, and sex is no longer possible (females are now artificially inseminated).

The After-Dinner Lethargy
The after-dinner lethargy of Thanksgiving is almost as famous at the turkey itself. The turkey’s L-tryptophan has always been cited as the cause of the sleepiness. While L-tryptophan has a documented sleep inducing effect, you could omit the bird altogether and still feel sleepy (ask a vegetarian) since L-tryptophan needs to be taken on an empty stomach and without any protein in order to make you drowsy. There’s plenty of protein in a serving of turkey so the turkey’s not the culprit.

A carbohydrate-rich (as opposed to protein-rich) meal, like Thanksgiving dinner, increases the level of L-tryptophan in the brain and leads to serotonin synthesis. (Serotonin is a neurotransmitter; a chemical that passes signals through the nerves of the body.) Serotonin has a documented calming effect. Carbohydrates stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin. When this occurs, some amino acids that compete with tryptophan leave the bloodstream and enter muscle cells. This causes an increase in the relative concentration of tryptophan in the bloodstream. The fats in Thanksgiving dinner slow down the digestive system and take a lot of energy to digest, so the body will redirect blood to your digestive system. Since you have less blood flow elsewhere, you feel less energetic after eating a meal rich in fats.

Thanksgiving dinner is also frequently accompanied by alcohol, a central nervous system depressant. If alcoholic beverages are part of your holiday celebration, then they will add to the nap-factor.

Finally, digesting a large meal, no matter what it is, takes a great deal of energy to digest. When your stomach is full, blood is directed away from other organ systems, including your nervous system. The result? You will feel the need to snooze after any big meal, particularly if it is high in fats and carbohydrates like the typical Thanksgiving dinner (regardless of turkey).

Happy Thanksgiving from the Science ACEs Team!

 

The Author
Morra_ACEs_AvatarChristina is a PhD candidate studying the interactions between gut bacteria and the human intestine. She is interested in pursuing a career teaching undergraduates.
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From electric read to living scientific principle: Frankenstein and the history of galvanism!

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein’s monster. From 1935.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired the imaginations of avid readers and movie makers for generations. The tale of the young Doctor Frankenstein and his ill-advised creation has filled us with horror and wonder, and the image of the lumbering, stitched-together man with electrodes protruding from his neck is now firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness. This classic story is now being re-visited yet again by the new film Victor Frankenstein, starring Professor X and Harry Potter…I mean James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliff. This new imagining casts Igor as a friend and assistant to the eccentric and charismatic Victor Frankenstein, with both being cast more in the light of well-meaning and heroic scientists that end up scrambling to fix an experiment gone awry than diabolical mad scientists.  Interestingly, the concepts explored in the story of Frankenstein have some basis in the scientific theories of the day. Though it is only hinted at in early editions before being clearly stated in a later revision, one of the most prevalent ideas explored is galvanism.

Galvanism is defined in biology as the contraction of muscles due to an electric current, whereas in physics and chemistry it is the creation of an electrical current from two chemicals with different electronegativities (that is, chemicals with differing abilities to attract electrons). The concept gets its name from the work of Luigi Galvani, a scientist who studied the effects of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780’s and 1790’s. He discovered this when he touched charged electric rods to the bodies of dead frogs and caused their legs to twitch. Later he found that by hanging frog legs from brass hooks and creating a circuit between the frog and the hook with different metals, he could create the same muscle contractions with no direct electrical stimulation!These experiments demonstrated both the biological and physical principles of galvanism. A more famous set of experimental demonstrations of galvanism, however, were done by his nephew Giovanni Aldini.  In this famous demonstration at Newgate in London in 1803, he stimulated the limbs of a dead body with electricity. The experiments caused Foster’s facial muscles to twitch, an eyelid to open, his arm to raise and clench, and his thighs and legs to move!

Today, galvanism is only used in biology to designate thoughts and experiments of a historical context. The current term for the study of electrical currents and their usage in the body is electrophysiology. It largely concerns the way the nervous system can create and transmit electrical impulses to control the muscles of the body. Despite the refinement and renaming of the field, the principles of galvanism that Mary Shelley would have heard about are not all that different from those of electrophysiology. In fact, one of the most popular theorized uses of galvanism in the 19th century was to use electricity to bring organisms back to life, which owes a considerable amount of credit to the publication of Shelley’s novel in 1818. In an eerie intersection between science fiction and science fact, today we use electrical impulses to “bring back to life” people whose hearts have stopped beating! So the next time you see a defibrillator kit, or a watch the doctor on your favorite medical show use a pair of defibrillator paddles, remember to thank Luigi Galvani, Mary Shelley, and Victor Frankenstein!

THE AUTHOR:
Brown%2cRogers-biopicROGERS BROWN IS A 4TH YEAR DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY GRADUATE STUDENT. HE IS INTERESTED IN BECOMING A SCIENCE EDUCATOR WHEN HE “GROWS UP”, AND SPENDS HIS FREE TIME EXPLORING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY IN VARIOUS MEDIA.

Jessica Jones and Kilgrave: Could the Purple Man exist in the real world?

Spoiler Warning: If you are planning to binge watch Jessica Jones this weekend, you might want to skip this article until Monday.

Jessica Jones the former hero turned private investigator is about to take on Supergirl as the best, new superheroine to appear on the small screen fall of 2015. Already Netflix’s newest contribution to the Marvel Universe has been met with great reviews, telling a very dark and mature story. The maturity comes from the relationship between the heroine and the villain. While the titular Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) has super strength and the ability to fly, her nemesis Kilgrave (David Tennant) has the power of mind control. In the world of comics, Jessica was a lower-level heroine named Jewel, who gave up the hero life after she was held hostage and tortured by Kilgrave’s mind control for several months. She was only freed after she was forced to fight another superheroine. While I am not sure which details will be carried over into the TV series, this relationship between the characters appears the same. We have already looked at the science behind super strength when discussing Supergirl, but is there any scientific basis for Kilgrave’s abilities?

Purple_Man

Purple Man. Fair Use.

In the comics Dr. Zebediah Kilgrave, also known as The Purple Man, is a supervillain known for several things. One is actually being purple, hence the name, and why David Tennant wears a lot of purple in the promotional material. Strangely enough, a person can actually have blue skin and purple lips through a blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia, most famously documented in the Fugate family of Kentucky. The color results because oxygen is not as easily released to the body from the blood stream due to higher than normal levels of methemoglobin (a rare form of protein in the blood). Additionally, people can develop blue colored skin through a condition known as argyria, caused by chronic exposure to colloidal silver.

However, as the Netflix series shows, the purple skin is not what makes Kilgrave terrifying; it is the mind control. Kilgrave can secrete chemical pheromones that let him control people by speaking, as long as the pheromone is absorbed and remains within their system. In the real world pheromones are well noted phenomena, especially in animals. First coined in 1959, a  pheromone is a chemical that is secreted and detected by organisms of the same species, which causes behavioral change. Pheromones have varying effects ranging from sexual attraction, or defense behavior. But can pheromones force animals to serve other animals?

Evidence in honey bees suggest the queen honey bee may control the female worker bees that surround and take care of her. The honeybee pheromone may prevent the worker bees from associating certain events with negative outcomes, including being around the queen bee.  As the other pheromones produced by the queen bee are unpleasant, the queen bee prevents the worker bees from learning they should not enjoy being around her, so they will take care of her. For honeybees this ensures that the hive survives as the queen bee is the bee giving birth to the workers. As the worker bees grow older they become resistant to this effect. However, it would be horrifying if a human were to do this.  

Do humans use pheromones? While it is true that humans do secrete chemicals, including in their sweat, scientists have not yet identified a human pheromone (despite what you may be able to buy on the internet). Humans do respond to the chemical smell of other people, but scientists have not yet identified the individual molecules that trigger the response. Human pheromones may exist; we just haven’t found them yet. Even if we do, it’s important to remember that pheromones influence behavior, but they don’t rob us of free will.

All signs suggest Kilgrave is going to be a new, terrifying villain of the Marvel Universe. Feel free to get excited watching Jessica Jones take him down. And don’t worry as far as we know mind control pheromones aren’t real.

THE AUTHOR:
Slide1THE MOTLEY ADVOCATE: I AM A CHRISTIAN, A BIOLOGIST, A FICTION WRITER AND AN AMATEUR AT MANY OTHER THINGS. MY ARTICLES ARE OFTEN SOME COMBINATION OF THESE ELEMENTS. I DON’T HAVE A TWITTER BUT YOU CAN E-MAIL ME THROUGH THE SCIENCE ACES E-MAIL (SCIENCE.ACES15@GMAIL.COM) .

 

5 Great Inventions Found Through Basic Research

Sometimes science works incrementally. One finding leads to another and slowly a large problem is figured out by solving smaller problems one after the other. Other times great leaps and breakthroughs occur from unexpected places. Neil deGrasse Tyson gives an example of this in the invention of the microwave oven (that I’ll describe more below). Many of these off-shoot discoveries occur when people work to seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake rather than work to solve a particular problem. The more we know and the more tools we have, the easier it is to tackle a problem.

Scientific work primarily targeted to discover new knowledge is generally known as basic science while work targeted to address a specific problem is known as applied science. Funding for research is drying up and more and more emphasis is placed on applied science that will generate predictable results. True breakthroughs though, are often made unexpectedly by discovering something that no one could have predicted. Below are 5 examples of important discoveries or products that were developed thanks to research in basic science.

1) Radar Dishes and Microwaves Both Melt Candy Bars for the Same Reason
Microwave Ovens were more discovered than invented. The technology microwaveand development behind microwaves is tied to the development of radar for military use (although radar is based in Maxwell and Hertz’ basic science study of electromagnetism). Percy Spencer spent his life working on radar communication. The story goes that one day in 1945 he was standing in front of an active radar dish and noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had begun to melt.  Naturally curious he then did a few experiments to determine whether the radar waves could cook other foods. He placed popcorn kernels in front of the radar that then popped. Another experiment involved a more compact enclosure and an egg which exploded on a colleague’s face. Messing around with radar waves eventually led to compact ovens using the same technology rebranded as microwaves.

2) Lasers Pointers are Reminders from Planck and Einstein to Study Quantum Physics
The laser, which is used in as many places as DVD players, fiber optic cables, eye surgery, and tattoo removal, would not be possible without knowledge of quantum mechanics discovered by Max Planck and then expanded by Albert Einstein. Planck worked to show that the energy in light is made of chunks of specific size (called photons), while Einstein found that the electrons of an object could be stimulated to make light of a specific color. Einstein proposed this basis for the laser 40 years before it was put into practice in the first laser made by Theodore H Maiman. This first laser was described as a “solution without a problem,” but it didn’t take long before lasers were quickly adapted for use in destroying an eye tumor a year later.

3) MRI is What Happens When You Say “If I Can Do This to an Atom, I Can Do This to a Person”
Magnetic Resonance Imaging gives us unprecedented ability in looking into living bodies and finding diseases in organs such as the heart and brain. This technology is an offshoot of atomic physics and sees application in many Chemistry labs even today. Isabor Rabi first demonstrated that the spinning of atomic particles could be measured using rhythmic magnetic pulses as early as 1938. This quickly earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944, but it wasn’t until 1974 that this method was expanded to make an MRI image of a live mouse. The 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for this work in developing MRI as a medically practical way of determining structure from atomic spin.

4) Modern Molecular Biology was Found in a Hot Spring
As a molecular biologist I have a soft spot for Taq Polymerase. In the 1970s Alice Chien working in the lab of John Trela at the University of Cincinnati asked whether the enzyme that makes DNA in Escherichia coli bacteria (DNA Polymerase) is similar to the polymerase that makes DNA in bacteria that live in hot springs. They isolated the polymerase and found similarities and differences between it and the E. coli enzyme. Specifically, this polymerase from hot springs was able to work at high temperatures where the commonly studied E. coli polymerase could not. Ten years later Kary Mullis was working on a way to copy DNA in a test tube. Initially his method wouldn’t work because the E. coli enzyme he used could not withstand the high temperatures needed. He used Taq Polymerase (enzyme from the hot spring bacteria) and it worked perfectly. This enzyme revolutionized the way molecular biology has been done allowing for the copying of DNA to study genes in the laboratory.

5) CRISPR is How a Bacterium Defends Itself Against Viruses
The discovery of specific gene alteration by CRISPR started out as research into how bacteria protect themselves from viruses. In 2012 Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were looking into how bacteria like Streptococcus pyogenes use small RNA molecules to fend off invading viruses. Working together they found that this small RNA molecule is being used as an address label that leads a protein to cut a specific piece of DNA. This is useful for bacteria killing viruses but it didn’t take long to determine that this system could be expanded to allow for precise gene editing. This has been heavily implemented in labs across the world studying ways to enhance crops, create new animal models of disease, or even change our own genes to cure genetic disorders.

Again, funding is limited and everyone prefers to see clear results, but I believe we need to invest in basic science to achieve the next breakthroughs in science. It wouldn’t make sense to look for the next gene editing technology in how bacteria prevents themselves from getting the flu. It doesn’t make sense to invest in quantum mechanics research to treat cancer; but the advances in one field expand into other fields in unexpected and often hugely impactful ways. Investing in knowledge for knowledge’s sake may be the only way we conquer the challenges that are too big for us to solve right now.

THE AUTHOR:
2013-12-04 14.06.58BRYAN VISSER IS A 2ND YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING DNA REPLICATION. HE PLANS ON MAKING A CAREER OF SCIENCE ADVOCACY WORKING AT A MUSEUM OR IN WASHINGTON. HE ALSO ENJOYS BOARD GAMES AND BALLROOM DANCING.

Our Global Microbiome

microbiome

Obtained from here.

Here is an immutable fact of life on earth: you will always be surrounded by bacteria. You live and breathe and eat bacteria; bacteria can keep you healthy or make you sick. There isn’t a place on earth where this isn’t true, from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest. Even the New York subway system has its own microbial signature!

Bacteria are the most diverse and abundant form of life on earth, and they have a major impact on everything from human health to carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. Microbiologists know how important it is to study these tiny life forms. One way they study bacterial communities, commonly known as microbiomes, is by simply finding out what bacteria are there. Which bacteria populate a particular part of the rainforest? Is the bacteria in the guts of healthy people different from the bacteria in the guts of people with a particular disease? Why did we find one subway station with totally different bacteria from all the other subway stations? (Answer: years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded the station and brought strange new bacteria with it).  

IMG_3143

“A bacteria at the bottom of the Mariana Trench”. Drawn by Jessica.

Despite the vital role bacteria play in our lives, we really don’t know that much about how how bacteria work together or what kind of impact different microbiomes have on our world. Last month in the journal Science, a group of U.S. scientists called for the next step in microbiology. These scientists believe it is time for a concerted approach to start understanding more about how these tiny organisms work on a large scale. They propose starting an interdisciplinary Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), which would encourage experts in many different fields to work together to understand how bacteria shapes our world. This initiative would bring together biologists, engineers, statisticians, and other scientists from all over the United States to create new ways to study bacteria and come up with innovative ways to cure diseases, create new biofuels, and even study climate change.

On the same day the Science article came out, three scientists hailing from Germany, China, and the United States published a letter in the journal Nature. They suggested taking the initiative a step further – rather than a national initiative, why not an international initiative?

Their proposal to create the International Microbiome Initiative (IMI) addresses many of the same ideas brought up by the UMI proposal. It also brings up the important point that science tends to be “siloed” – that is, different fields of science often have their own ways of collecting and analyzing data and may fail to consider perspectives outside their own sphere.

The result? Lots of interesting science that is hard to connect and compare. The IMI seeks to solve this problem by introducing international guidelines and by organizing data and sharing it in a way that protects intellectual property.
By studying bacterial communities, we open the door to an incredible, invisible world. There is such a richness to this world, this ancient and abundant form of life. It will take effort from every area of science to fully understand how microbiomes function and how they impact our lives. The UMI and the IMI represent ideals held by many scientists about connecting data on a global level. Together, we can find answers to big questions and big problems.

The Author: 
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJessica is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

Marco Rubio

We’re finishing up our profiles on political candidates with Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida. We hope that this series has been helpful to start your research on the 2016 presidential candidates. Don’t forget to vote!

Name: Marco Rubio

macro_rubio

Official portrait of US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Source: US Senate.

Party Affiliation: Republican

Government Positions Held: United States Senator from Florida (2011); Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives (2006-2008); Member of the Florida House of Representatives (2000-2008)

Education: B.A. in Political Science from University of Florida, J.D. from University of Miami

Stance on:

Science Research Funding: Rubio has expressed his enthusiastic support for projects such as the mission to Pluto. However, Rubio has supported budget cuts for NASA, which limits its funding for earth science research. Regarding embryonic stem cell research, Rubio is against government funding of such projects. Rubio has not commented on whether he plans to increase funding for government-funded research entities  like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

Climate Change and Alternative Energy: Despite his position as Chair of Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, Rubio “claims he is not a scientist” and defers to “what the Bible says” on questions about earth science. In 2014, Rubio’s views on climate change and alternative energy echoed that of many in his party. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it, and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.” However, in a recent debate, Rubio claimed his is “not skeptical” of climate change, but maintained that proposed solutions by the Obama administration and other democrats will destroy our economy.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Rubio has not publically expressed his views on GMOs. Importantly, in 2013, Rubio voted against a bill that would allow states to require GMO food labelling.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education: Unlike many of the other candidates Rubio has specifically addressed his support for STEM education and historically has made it a priority in his education platforms. In 2010, Rubio released a 12-point education plan, which included an item to “overcome the science, technology, engineering and mathematics crisis.” In 2013, Rubio co-sponsored a bill which aimed to increase visas for immigrant workers in STEM fields and promote STEM education. Most recently, Rubio and democratic senator Bob Casey, introduced the Computer Science Education and Jobs Act.

Affordable Care Act (Obamacare): Rubio outlined his Obamacare alternative in an article for Politico Magazine. Essentially, Rubio believes “Obamacare is fatally flawed” and has fought against it during his time in the senate. Rubio’s plan has three points: (1) “create an advanceable, refundable tax credit that all Americans can use to purchase health insurance”, (2)reform insurance regulations to lower costs, encourage innovation, and protect the vulnerable”, and (3)save and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid by placing them on fiscally-sustainable paths.”

Vaccines: Rubio has come out strongly in support of vaccines, claiming “all children should be vaccinated.” Rubio also stated “There is absolutely no medical science or data what so ever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature.” Rubio even hinted at support of government mandated vaccines asserting “I believe that all children, as is the law in most states in this country, before they can even attend school, have to be vaccinated for a certain panel.”

Summary: Rubio’s record of unwillingness to expand government funding on programs such as NASA and alternative energy research may be discouraging. However, he is one of the few candidates that has specifically addressed improving the state of STEM education in the U.S.  and Rubio’s  detailed healthcare plan and strong support of vaccines indicates that the health of Americans is a major priority of his.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarANTHONY BARRASSO IS THIRD YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT. CURRENTLY, HE STUDIES RETINAL DEVELOPMENT. ANTHONY’S CAREER INTERESTS INCLUDE CANCER RESEARCH, EDUCATION, AND POLITICS. OUTSIDE OF LAB, HE LIKES TO PLAY WITH MY DOG AND EAT DELICIOUS FOOD. FOLLOW ANTHONY ON TWITTER @BARRASSO67

Q: The PhD of Bond

Spectre_poster

Theatrical release poster. Copyright MGM and Columbia Pictures. 2015

At some point, we have all pretended to be James Bond. After all what is not awesome about being a secret agent? You travel to exotic locations, drink martinis, fight villains, and then save the world. Now you are probably wondering what direction this article will go from here. Will I talk about how scientists work at M16? Am I going to talk about real world scientific espionage? Am I going to explain how Bond’s invisible car would work in real life? No, I’m going to argue that while I did not grow up to be James Bond, I am training to be an equally important character, Q.

Q or the Quartermaster was the head of the research and development division of M16, and the one to provide James Bond with all of his cool gadgets. He was in fact based on the real life gadgeteer, Charles Fraser-Smith who worked for the Ministry of Supplies during World War II.  So why would I argue that being a Ph.D. is like being Q? Bear with me a second.

In the fight against disease, medical doctors (MDs), are a bit like 007. They are trained professionals, who work out in the field (or in this case hospitals and clinics). They wear suits (or lab coats) and use specialized equipment. Then of course, they are trying to save the world, or technically the sick people of the world.

Now there are a lot of doctors who have Doctorate of Philosophy degrees (PhDs)  instead of MDs. If these doctors work in medicine, they normally do not focus on treating patients. Instead they may focus on basic research, the scientific research that increases our understanding of how the world works. Instead of asking how do we treat this disease, they ask how does this disease function? Other PhD scientists use this research to develop new treatment options. Essentially, PhD scientists are research and development for all of the fun toys that the MDs use to help people.

Now this is not a hard and fast rule. There are many PhDs who also take an active interest in treating patients (Q sometimes showed up in the field). There are many MDs who take an active interest in basic research, (James Bond sometimes figured out new uses for the gadgets that Q hadn’t figured out). In fact some people have two degrees and are known as MD-PhDs. At the same time, there can sometimes be a little animosity between MDs and PhDs, similar to 007 and Q. The PhDs, just like Q, may feel that the MDs don’t appreciate the hard work that goes into research. While the MDs, just like 007, can feel that PhDs, disregard the importance of working in the field. However, in general both MD and PhD doctors hold mutual respect for each other and the work they do. If you watch the interactions between 007 and Q, you  will notice that despite the teasing, there is always a sense of mutual respect. At the end of the day, 007 and Q did care about each other.  

There is a downside to being Q. Patients meet the doctors and nurses who treat them. However, they will never meet the numerous people the studied their diseases, developed and tested the treatments prescribed to them, or any of the other roles scientists take on to help people. James Bond did save the world on numerous occasions, but he needed the help of Q, M and all the other people in M16 working for the same goal.

We have all enjoyed the interactions between Q and 007 for many years now. I hope you all enjoy the release of Spectre, the twenty fourth James Bond film, with Daniel Craig as 007 and Ben Whishaw as Q.  Then the next time you see your doctor, ask them if they have a license to save, or if they take their coffee shaken not stirred.

THE AUTHOR:
Slide1THE MOTLEY ADVOCATE: I AM A CHRISTIAN, A BIOLOGIST, A FICTION WRITER AND AN AMATEUR AT MANY OTHER THINGS. MY ARTICLES ARE OFTEN SOME COMBINATION OF THESE ELEMENTS. I DON’T HAVE A TWITTER BUT YOU CAN E-MAIL ME THROUGH THE SCIENCE ACES E-MAIL (SCIENCE.ACES15@GMAIL.COM) .

This article is dedicated to the memory of Joshua David Ruff (1989-2012), who was a true James Bond fan and was forcibly retired from the field too early.

When is a headshot not a kill? The curious biology of The Walking Dead

Title Pic

The Walking Dead. Copyright AMC Studios.

The scene-chewing Walkers in AMC’s The Walking Dead series are a thing of beauty – violent, grisly beauty. The makeup, special effects, and acting combine for a zombie Rembrandt of sci-fi entertainment. I figure since The Walking Dead is in full swing and we just celebrated Halloween, what better timing to sprinkle some science in with our horror stories? As much as I love the Walkers, a key aspect of their biology has been annoying me since the end of season 1. My gripe is simple: how Rick and the gang dispatch the zombies is inconsistent with the show’s “zombie biology”. Mild spoilers ahead.

Let’s be clear, I’m not here to point out everything in The Walking Dead universe that is impractical or unrealistic. We could spend an eternity on that endeavor (how do zombies walk despite lacking a functional circulatory system necessary to feed the muscles that do the walking?). No, I’m fine with whatever rules that authors want to put in their fictional universes. Your zombies are caused by a microbe (bacteria, virus, or fungus) that (Spoilers for Season 2!) already infects the living, but takes control of your brain after death? Awesome! I have no problem with any of that. I do however, have a problem with internal inconsistencies. Namely, that the Walkers do not obey the rules of their own damn made-up world!

We can find a contrasting example of internal consistency in the Game of Thrones universe, where there exist “wargs” or “skinchangers”. They are characters that can transfer their consciousness into animals and possibly humans, as is the case with Bran Stark via Hodor. The universe is internally consistent with this rule in that: 1. The warg experiences what the animal experiences. 2. The warg can transfer their consciousness to an animal when their human body dies (although the warg’s consciousness is lost when the animal dies). 3. Although the warg doesn’t die when their animal hosts do, they experience great trauma over the ordeal. These are situations that logically flow from how “warging” works in this universe.

Now what’s the problem with The Walking Dead? Well, you might have been paying attention at the end of season 1, where the gang reaches the CDC in Atlanta. Here they meet Edwin Jenner, a doctor that explains to them that the Walkers only possess reanimated activity in the brain stem. No problem! So these zombies only have a functioning brainstem….what is a brainstem?

brainstem and brain

Copyright of The Stroke Network. All rights reserved. Obtained from here.

Your brainstem is composed of separate components called the medulla, pons, and midbrain. It’s basically the conductor of your central nervous system, relaying sensory information from your brain to your body and vice versa. It also controls your heart rate and breathing. So what’s the rest of that big ol’ brain used for?

brain senses

Ask a Biologist. Funded by National Science Foundation and NSDL. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences: an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Obtained from here.

According to this figure, a lot. Do you see the issue? Everything the Walkers do in this universe – like reacting to sight, sound, and smell, or even just walking itself – is dependent on non-brainstem parts of the brain! The Walking Dead zombies shouldn’t even be walking, much less finding their victims through audio-visual cues! However, I’m willing to forego this little conundrum. Scientific knowledge is constantly changing, even in this universe. Maybe that zombie-causing pathogen found a way to re-wire the brainstem to perform these tasks, and the researchers just haven’t figured it out yet. Fine, but let’s talk about those gore-iffic zombie kills.

I’m going to pick on fan favorite Daryl Dixon for this particularly egregious example. Take note of where the arrow is going through the zombie’s skull.

Daryl

The Walking Dead. Copyright AMC Studios.

By the series’ own rules, this is not a zombie kill, as the brain stem is unaffected. Daryl should still be fighting for his life against a now cartoonish arrow-through-skull walker. Let’s take a look at a more effective method.

Martinez

The Walking Dead. Copyright AMC Studios.

Hell yeah! Way to go, Martinez! You bashed through that soft, nougaty center to get to that pesky brainstem inside. This would count as a true zombie kill in this universe. Other effective methods that target the brainstem include cranial skewering via sword or pickaxe, back-of-the-head shots, and decapitation (followed by eventual skewering to silence the gnashing head).

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for my escapist fantasy series to be internally consistent. Any rules a fictional universe wants to create are fine by me, but please don’t blatantly ignore them when it concerns the main characters. Shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are wildly entertaining, and such attention to detail would deliver a story that is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

About the author:
austen_avatarAusten is a fifth year graduate student and president of Science ACEs. His dream is to go fishing every day once he’s finished with this bacterial pathogenesis thing. You can follow him on twitter @AustenLeeT