The Truth

Spoiler Alert: I’ve taken plenty of care to try and not spill the beans on any plotlines, but you have been forewarned that there may be some aspects of the science that’s discussed on the show that I attempt to break down, which may or may not kill the suspense if you haven’t watched the new season already.

Disclaimer: I am in no way connected with or endorse any TV shows, their science/pseudoscience, its actors, or makers. This is post is meant to be a fan’s fun take on the show’s portrayal of modern science.

The ominous end of credit-sequence from The X Files. Image courtesy: Fox

Alright, now that all the liabilities are out of the way, I can’t tell you how big of a fan I am of the show, “The X Files”. I remember religiously traveling to my grandparents to watch episodes on their TV, the excitement uncontainable and rife amongst us faithful geeks in the classroom the following morning. The show enjoyed a glorious first few seasons, while fizzling out in the early 2000’s, and a resurrection early this year, with a running premise of human quests for answers to otherwise seemingly strange and untoward occurrences with oftentimes plain bat-shit-crazy-annoying persistence of a “believer”, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, and the ever skeptical rationale, often backed by the state of the art in genetics and medicine of his partner, FBI Special Agent Dana Scully. From alien abductions, mutant creatures (the stuff that nightmares are made of), medical anomalies and miracles, legends and folklore to international conspiracies, the show has done it all. And I, like a lot of you, have had a very love-hate relationship with the show. Setting aside some directorial flaws, terrible acting, and redundant storylines, I’ve found myself at odds with the show’s representation, and misrepresentation of science. For those of you that want to venture beyond my questions about its scientific legitimacy, I point you to a book by Anne Simon, one of the show’s scientific advisers.
The writers have caught on to the relatively recent advances in genomic sequencing technologies to bring up some interesting questions, which I figured I’d chit-chat about.

Scully’s “genome” on a sheet of paper. Sigh. Image courtesy: Fox

  1. Does Scully really have “alien” DNA?
    Sure! But depends on what you call “alien”. Unfortunately, here’s where the show defies logic –the actual source of Scully’s “alien” genomic introgression is perhaps well too known to scientists and anthropologists today. We just call it introgression from an unsampled, or sampled genome, often archaic (see here, and here). In order for Scully’s genome to contain extraterrestrial DNA, either (1) there ought to be comparable samples of extraterrestrial DNA (which she doesn’t – sharing alleles with another supposed abductee, Sveta doesn’t cut it – perhaps they just shared a recent common ancestor that was admixed), or (2) her genomic make-up contained anomalous nucleotides (eg. see the contentious, and now debunked studies of arsenic DNA in GFAJ-1), or (3) she’s JK TBH LOL.
  2. How does Scully’s genome fit into an A4 sheet of paper, and how does she receive it overnight?
    While it seems ludicrous to suppose that anyone will “receive” their genome on paper overnight, I think it’s fair to surmise that she was indeed looking at summary statistics. But on closer examination, it’s a bunch of gels. Hmmm. But looking past the piece of paper (an actual printed genome fills more than a hundred books), how far are we from making overnight genomes happen? Not too far, from the looks of it. Recent advances show close to 26 hour turnaround time of whole genomes (see here), and correspondingly, pricing of whole genome sequencing has also reduced substantially (from billion dollar innovations with the Venter genome, to $999 personalized genomes).
  3. Can/did the Government really control its peoples’ genetics?
    This one’s simple – almost as glaringly so as the debate over genetically modified organisms – humans have been “modifying” organisms over millennia. Similarly, most human populations are structured, often by geographical boundaries. So unbeknownst to the lay, human diversity is already constrained by country-lines. But beyond that, the premise that Governments have been utilizing CRISPR-CAS9 technologies, somehow incorporated into mass vaccination programs to edit out key immune response genes (eg. ADA) seems straight out of the crannies of the internet of conspiracy theories. That being said, these are exciting times – recent advances in technology have shown promising signs of utilizing gene editing on embryos (see here, and here). Taking fiction for what it is, the makers of The X Files have been suggesting the possibility of gene editing since its first few seasons. Conspiracy or not, that’s almost as exciting as inventions on The Jetsons.

In short, the show, beyond its blather, has been, and continues to be ahead of its time – a distorted, dystopian present with scientific monsters of thought and the living.

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About Arun Sethuraman

I am a computational biologist, and I build statistical models and tools for population genetics. I am particularly interested in studying the dynamics of structured populations, genetic admixture, and ancestral demography.
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