Aaahh!! Real Monsters!: How parasites and pathogens colonised fiction.

After the recent torrent of zombie everything and anything, it might feel like science fiction is all about done with weird parasites and diseases.  But the mystery and power of organisms sometimes invisible to the human eye has inspired fiction for decades, including some of the most famous Sci-Fi monsters. I’d take a wager that we’re still a few undead away from total eradication of fictional parasites.

Settle in, pull on a hazmat suit and a facemask, and we’ll delve elbow deep into the parasitic ooze of film, television and video games to take a good look at some of the best parasites and pathogens Sci-Fi has to offer.

Xenomorph or Alien – Alien franchise
Best get the big guns out right away. Alien is one of my all-time favourite films, centred around one of cinema’s most iconic and terrifying Sci-Fi monsters.

Xenomorphs they steal resources from their host from within the host’s body, so we can call them endoparasites. They’ve got a pretty complex life cycle: some life stages needing a host and some able to live in the environment. This mixture of host dependency is seen quite often in real parasites, in human-infective worms such as the roundworms Schistosoma and Ascaris, and flatworms like Fasciola. Like the Xenomorph, these worms use their human host as a place to reproduce or develop, whilst the free living stages search through the environment for new hosts to infect.

 Putting my well-practised, “parasite-life-cycle-specific” drawing skills to good use even years on from all of my undergraduate exams.
Putting my well-practised, “parasite-life-cycle-specific” drawing skills to good use even years on from all of my undergraduate exams.

Real parasitic worms are fairly scary too, responsible for a huge burden of severe and chronic disease especially among the world’s poorest populations. Although we can at the very least be grateful that their method of exiting the host as eggs in the faeces is a little less violent than the “chestbursting” exit of the Xenomorph.

Genophage – Mass Effect video game series
Some of our fear of pathogens is really a result of our fear of our own misuse of them, as bioweapons. Genophage is a phage-like virus in the Mass Effect universe used against the Krogran race to control their population by the Citadel, an intergalactic governing body.

Phages are small, simple viruses that infect bacteria. In doing so, they are able to insert genetic material from themselves or other host cells, into that of their current host. The modus operandi of the genophage virus is not too dissimilar, as it inserts a specific mutation into all the body cells of Krogans that prevent pregnancies carrying to term.

Phages have the power to turn the fairly unpleasant Escherichia coli bacterium into a thoroughly horrible and occasionally fatal O157:H7 form. Scientists are now trying to harness this ability, but for much less nefarious purposes. It’s hoped that modified phages could provide a new mechanism of delivering vaccines or medical treatment against certain infections: seriously cool stuff.

Ceti Eel – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

As a complete non-Trekkie, my one-time viewing of 1982’s The Wrath of Khan didn’t give me a full idea of the wonderful world of Star Trek zoology (TRIBBLES. LOOK AT THEM).

 TRIBBLES. Star Trek: The Original Series. Desilu productions. Still taken from Wikimedia Commons.
TRIBBLES. Star Trek: The Original Series. Desilu productions. Still taken from Wikimedia Commons.

From that one film I was introduced to Ceti Eels, fantastic parasites that set off my love for the gory and gruesome in a manner only paralleled by real parasites on the level of loaiasis and Chigoe fleas. After incubating in the body of its parent, the developed Ceti Eel enters a host through the ear, worming its way into the skull cavity and attaching to the cerebral cortex. As you can imagine this is hugely painful.

The Ceti Eel then unveils its crowning weapon: mind control. Or to be more precise, the infected are left susceptible to suggestion – fantastic news for the enigmatic antagonist, Khan.

Mind control must surely be confined to Sci-Fi? Not so. Both Ophiocordyceps fungus and Dicrocoelium fluke worms can manipulate their host’s behaviour to suit their own ends. The juvenile stage of the fluke is released by snails as cysts in their slime. Ants eat said slime for its moisture. Once in the ant, one key worm gets up to the central nerve structure of the ant, and convinces it to climb to the top of a blade of grass and clamp down, waiting right on show to be accidentally eaten up by a cow or sheep. The worm drives the ant to get itself eaten. The real mind-controlling worm is even better at its job than the fictional eel!

Why are there so many parasites in Sci-Fi (and why are they all so damn cool)? Art and culture are vital for exploring and communicating the world around us. This stands just as true for science fiction, and just as true for the gory and the weird that nature likes to throw at us. The strange and exciting parts of nature are what take our piqued interest, and drive us to fascination and awe. So, while the current zombie tidal wave might just be past its peak, I reckon as long as we have fantastic, powerful, utterly disgusting parasites from which to draw inspiration, we’re going to be telling stories about them for a long time to come.

This post, by author Beth Levick, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

References: fictional

References: better than fictional

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