| The Science of The X-Files |
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THIS IS GOING TO HURT ME MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU
While the viral DNA may be very good for Dr. Secare, it isn't good for Mulder, who is exposed to it when Dr. Secare is shot in "The Erlenmeyer Flask," and again later when he shoots the bounty hunter in "Endgame." Nor is it good for Agent Weiss in "Colony," who is killed by the virus. The infective agent is called a retrovirus in other episodes, but I believe it is the same virus that Dr. Berube was working with. A retrovirus is simply a type of virus that contains RNA in its protein envelope instead of DNA. This makes it easier for the virus to insert its DNA into ours, and so makes the virus more dangerous. Why does the same retrovirus have two such different effects when given through gene therapy and when inhaled in loose blood?
This actually is not unusual at all. Viruses and other agents may be infective only under certain conditions. HIV, for example, is harmless on your skin, yet can be deadly if it enters your bloodstream. Most retroviruses, in fact, target a specific type of cell. HIV targets human white blood cells. While we don't know much about the workings of the alien retrovirus, let's examine what we do know.
When we contact it in the air, as in the blood spray from a gunshot wound, the retrovirus obviously has an immediate and powerful affect on our mucus membranes, causing severe eye irritation, breathlessness, and nasal discharge. A wide variety of viruses are responsible for acute respiratory disease, yet no virus we know of can work this quickly.
The quick reaction suggests something more like a toxin. Various organisms produce toxins naturally. Batrachotoxin is secreted by the skin of a frog that lives in western Colombia. It has been developed as a bioweapon since it causes muscles to contract and eventually the heart to fail. Tetrodotoxin, mentioned in the episode "Fresh Bones," comes from the pufferfish. The fish stores the toxin in its skin, liver, and intestines, paralyzing predators who try to take a bite. So we might theorize that the hybrids store a toxin in their body that is released with a puncture to the skin.
We then need to explain why this toxin does no harm to Dr. Secare when it is within his body. Perhaps the toxin, if confined to a specific area, such as the skin or bloodstream, is not a danger. We have substances in our bodies that are harmless in one area yet would be toxic in another. For example, our stomachs produce hydrochloric acid, one of the most corrosive of acids, to aid in the digestion process. It does no damage to the stomach, yet if I threw it in your eyes or down your throat, it would certainly prove toxic. Similarly, the pufferfish stores toxin in its skin, liver, intestines that do no harm to the pufferfish, but paralyze an enemy when the toxin is ingested. So we might imagine the virus producing a protein of some kind which causes a violent reaction when it contacts mucous membranes. Such a reaction could include eye irritation, difficulty breathing, and damage to the clotting system, which could cause the purplish discoloration around the eyes seen on Agent Weiss.
An alternate explanation is provided by Scully, who suggests that the violent reaction is caused by an immune or allergic response. While Earthly viruses don't cause allergic reactions, certainly the symptoms appear similar to a violent allergic reaction, which is caused by a hypersensitive immune response to a substance. A first exposure to a substance, however, does not cause an allergic response. This can only occur when someone has been exposed to the substance before and so been sensitized to it. A second exposure, though, to just minute quantities, can cause a hypersensitive reaction within seconds. In the case of an inhaled allergen, this can cause allergic asthma, triggering swelling of the linings of the eyelids and nasal passages, secretion of mucus in the nose and bronchial tubes, and swelling and contraction of the bronchial tubes, making breathing difficult. These are the immediate symptoms we see in Mulder and Agent Weiss.
But how could a first exposure have occurred? Well, if you want to think like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, a well-coordinated conspiracy could ensure that every FBI agent and every Department of Defense official got a nice sample through the government air vents. The viral envelope would be all they'd have to send through the vents. The proteins on the surface would then be detected as foreign, antibodies created, and the stage set for a rapid reaction on the next exposure.
So an allergic response might be responsible for the immediate symptoms. That immediate reaction is followed shortly after by hyperviscosity, a thickening of the blood that, if not treated, ends in death. Agent Weiss dies from his; Mulder nearly dies from it in "Colony." Hyperviscosity can occur when an abnormally high percentage of red blood cells, hemoglobin, or other proteins in the blood create increased resistance to blood flow, thickened blood, and an increased danger of clot formation. This condition can be caused by several diseases; inherited conditions, such as a defect in hemoglobin; or congential abnormalities, such as heart disease, that create an increased demand for oxygen or an impaired ability to pick up oxygen from the lungs. Hyperviscosity can also be caused by living at high altitudes or extreme obesity. The need for more oxygen stimulates production of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the bone marrow. This high concentration of red blood cells blocks blood flow in small capillaries, and the lack of oxygen kills tissue and damages organs. Symptoms include a ruddy complexion, dizziness, seizures, headache, rapid breathing, and lethargy. Brain damage and strokes can also result. Treatment includes increasing fluids and administering transfusions. In cases where abnormal hemoglobin is the cause, the abnormal protein must be removed from the blood. This is done through plasmapheresis, in which blood is taken from the patient, the protein filtered out, and the blood returned. In the case of the alien retrovirus, it's difficult to imagine how it might cause hyperviscosity so quickly. But if we ignore the time factor for a moment, we can imagine that the retrovirus, once inside our bodies, might begin to insert itself into our cells--perhaps all our cells, or perhaps just a particular type of cell, such as the stem cells in bone marrow. Within the bone marrow, red blood cells and hemoglobin develop. Since the bone marrow cells and red blood cells are among the most rapidly dividing cells in the body, the viral DNA could be quickly multiplied in these new cells. And by incorporating themselves into our bone marrow cells, they could potentially alter the composition of the hemoglobin we produce, leading to abnormal hemoglobin and so to hyperviscosity.
Again we have to wonder how Dr. Secare survived with this dangerous retrovirus inside him. Why doesn't he suffer from hyperviscosity? Dr. Secare, however, did not receive this entire virus, but only one or more genes from it delivered through gene therapy. A virus can have anywhere from three genes up to two hundred. So the most dangerous part of the retrovirus may not have been inserted into Dr. Secare. This may be why Mulder's reaction to Dr. Secare's blood seems much less serious than his reaction to the bounty hunter's blood. Perhaps Secare lacks the factor that triggers hyperviscosity.
If the retrovirus truly came from the fetal gray alien in "The Erlenmeyer Flask," as is implied, why choose to insert viral DNA into Dr. Secare, and not gray alien DNA? Well, the viral DNA may actually be a part of the grays. The retrovirus may have incorporated itself long ago into the grays' DNA, essentially becoming part of it. Two such retroviruses, called endogenous viruses, are incorporated into the DNA of most pigs. Pigs may have up to thirty copies of the viral DNA in each cell. They do the pigs no harm. Yet it has recently been shown that both of these viruses can infect human cells, raising concerns that humans receiving organ transplants from pigs may be infected with the viruses and cause the start of a new viral threat to humans. The grays may even benefit from the presence of the retrovirus, as strains of bacteria have been shown to profit from infection by some viruses.
[The discussion continues with an examination of the different types of alien/human hybrids on the show.]
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Updated June 5, 2003