Genetic engineering on the Fringe

One of many B-movies based on a giant insect rampage.

I like sci-fi. I’m not your typical Star-Wars nerd, instead I like B-movies. You know… the low-budget creature feature movies that entail some giant creature killing everything in sight? They’re fun, campy, not at all meant to be taken seriously, yet can be useful in teaching about biology due to their reliance upon urban legends. Still, some things about them do get on my nerves.

Let’s take an episode of the television show FringeImmortality (13th episode of the 3rd season). Fringe is your typical X-Files wannabe show with writing that’s sub-par even for prime-time TV. The show centers around investigators who investigate apparent criminal abuses of science. And there’s a doomsday device in a parallel universe, somehow woven into the plotline, which feels like a very uncreative and poorly done rip-off of the parallel universe in the Doctor Who episode Rise of the Cybermen.

Anyway, the Immortality episode is about entomology, in which a mad scientist genetically modified a sheep parasite which somehow has a protein which cures a deadly flu. The episode made no sense to me for reasons I’m going to get into in a few moments, but there’s something more important I’d like to get to first because I think it’s an important part of how scientists are viewed in popular culture.

Picture Courtesy of Bug Girl's Blog.

If you watch the episode, something jumps out at you rather quickly. These are people who are chasing a man who uses insects to commit murder. Yet, the people who actually know stuff about insects are given less than 10 minutes of airtime. Furthermore (at least in this show) scientists are generally written as shallow, boring or creepy people and this episode was the epitome of that. “Bug Girl”  (at right) in this episode was little more than eye candy and the main characters seemed really impressed by someone who was spewing statistics jargon with the grace of a freshman student who is struggling to get a C. It was sad, and just another reminder how commonly scientists are treated information spewing machines by television writers.

A friend of mine (the original Bug Girl) wrote a piece critical of the episode. In particular, she criticized the resident entomologist for looking a bit too stereotypical. Entomologists have gone through a transition in how folks view them. People used to see entomologists as a nerdy guy in a khaki vest, but more recently we get someone decked out in full goth regalia. Truth be told, I’m fine with this because it’s not as bad as how people view other closely related disciplines like geneticists. Plus, I’ve met entomologists who dress fairly similarly to this in real life.  Some of my fellow graduate students regularly don full biker regalia to work. Ultimately, I think it’s funny how you almost never see a scientist in their traditional gear: jeans and a cheap T-shirt.

Blaberus discoidales by DigbyRigby via PhotoBucket.

When doing a TV show that involves insects, you’re beset by some rather interesting limitations. There are only so many insects available on the market and the type of storyline you do revolves around what you can get and how easy it is to handle. In this particular case, they used some sort of Blaberus species roach. I’m thinking Blaberus discoidales, mostly because they look about right, are fairly cheap, and would be easy for a TV producer to get.

In the wild, they mostly live in caves eating bat poo, but in the Fringe ‘verse they’re apparrently known as Skelter beetles which were a parasite of sheep which became extinct in an unexplained manner which Abrams thought was somehow irrelevant to the plot. Now… if they’d have mentioned they were related to something like water pennies or said something about a ‘missing gonopore’, I’d have forgiven the crappy writing, but they didn’t.

I halfheartedly jotted down some notes while watching the episode. Here’s my summary of this train-wreck interspersed with some scientific facts.

The episode opens with two guys in an airport-type building. The older dude switches the younger dude’s drink and ominous music ensues. Fortunately for the younger guy, instead of getting hit with a roofie he instead drank some invisible beetle eggs. The eggs somehow managed to hatch and consume him from the inside out, gaining an incredible amount of biomass within a few minutes.

Parasitoid wasps grow from an egg the size of a comma to a grain of rice in a week. Percentagewise, this is a HUGE increase in biomass. Total biomass, not so much. These beetles take about 20 minutes to go from microscopic eggs to inch-and a half long insects.

Anyways, the old dude follows the now sick young dude into a bathroom stall and some screaming ensues after which you see the older guy getting the hell out of there while still managing to keep his shoes clean. At first, I was thinking roofie… but then you see tons of beetles and then you suddenly remember that you’re watching bad sci-fi.

After a rather poorly compiled intro sequence, you see some federal agents bantering and happily collecting bugs from a guy who just died. There are a few scenes with a bunch of stuff that’s probably relevant to some sub-plot I don’t care about but they eventually arrive at a relatively stereotypical entomology lab where there are people pinning a seemingly unrelated assortment of bugs for unexplained reasons with someone’s pet tarantula laying randomly about on a table.

If we assume it was a taxonomy lab, they generally work on one group of insects whether it’s a single family of beetles, flies or mantids. This was just a hodgepodge of random invertebrates.

Bug Girl incorrectly ID’s a cockroach as a beetle and hits on a fairly uncharasmatic agent who has no real role other than to sit around and look kind of menacing. During the course of her mis-ID, she announces that an aircraft station was an unusual habitat for beetles while seemingly oblivious to the fact that beetles are found almost everywhere on earth.

A few minutes after she goes away, one of the creepy statisticians informs the crew that they weren’t in the midst of an outbreak… which kind of makes me wonder why they weren’t wearing protective gear in the first scene as well as why they were traveling and thus exposing more potential targets to the terror attack. She also tells them that ‘statistics’ suggest they’ll get at least two calls if the agents tell the public there might be a biological terrorist attack going on. This impresses the agents, who apparrently don’t realize that putting out a phone number and asking for information is essentially telling every crank in the world that they’re willing to listen to any sort of insanity.

Of course, creepy stats girl was correct because they get inundated with waaay more than two useless calls as well as one which tells them about a beetle expert which Bug Girl should have been able to find with a quick google search. They eventually decide to track him down… and hey, guess what… he’s the bad guy! This is rather convenient for the team because they’ve got like half an hour to track down a fairly incompetent scientist.

It turns out the beetle expert is trying to rear the beetles in humans to create a flu vaccine from the adult beetle.Why he didn’t merely create a cDNA library before his beloved beetles went extinct (or from preserved specimens stored at -80) and order an expression kit will forever remain a mystery. Making copies of the beetle genes for the desired proteins and then using your colorimetric assay to find the protein of interest after producing them in bacteria seems a lot easier than killing multiple people and working in an underground lab. Either way, the crew tracks him down and one of them manages to get nabbed by the not-so-bright scientist.

There’s some confusion by the Fringe team over whether or not the cute girl is infected after she got kidnapped. To fill the rest of the time slot, the scientist gets yelled at, some guns are drawn, he pulls a beetle out of his neck and it turns out cute girl isn’t infected with Skelter beetles (which would have made the show marginally better), she’s just pregnant and her boyfriend isn’t the dad.

This show is in it’s third season. Firefly didn’t last one season. We’re in desperate need of good science fiction and good roles for scientists on TV… this is just more proof of that.

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Joe Ballenger is an entomologist who works in the biotech industry as a contractor. In his spare time, he helps answer questions about bugs at Ask an Entomologist.