Ebola: Horror and Hope for a Cure

As an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola crosses borders in West Africa, people are asking new questions about the virus and its potential to turn into a global pandemic (hint: it’s not gonna happen). Greg Laden writes “The disease is too hot to not burn itself out, and it has no human reservoir. Ebola accidentally broke into the human population earlier this year or late last year.” The current numbers from the WHO suggest 1800 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola so far with a mortality rate edging down toward 55%.

Last week some in the U.S. objected to bringing two American patients back home, but Tara C. Smith writes that Ebola has been there all along, in government labs, while related viruses like Lassa and Marburg have been imported by infected travelers without causing additional cases. The one characteristic of Ebola we can be thankful for is that it is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air like a cold or flu. Smith concludes, “Ebola is exotic and its symptoms can be terrifying, but also much easier to contain by people who know their stuff.” Meanwhile, Greg Laden writes that an extremely rare, untested ‘cure’ for the illness does exist, and it has also been given to the two infected Americans. He’s referring to anti-serum, i.e. blood serum containing natural Ebola antibodies modelled after those generated by infected mice. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter shows how the antibodies lock onto viral proteins, and says it is time to focus on mass-producing an effective antiserum for this horrible disease. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how the manufacturing process works: genetically modifying viruses to contain blueprints for parts of Ebola antibodies, putting the viruses in bacteria as delivery vehicles, and using the bacteria to infect GMO tobacco plants whose cellular machinery will be hijacked to make molecules. Smith writes, “Plants are a pretty cheap way to produce a lot of protein. Blow up the plant cells, purify your protein, and BAM! A ton of anti-Ebola antibodies.”


DNA: The Web Inside the Strands

Only 1% of the human genome codes for proteins, which might make you wonder what the rest of the nucleotide sequence is good for. In 2012 the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (or ENCODE) announced that a full 80% of the genome played a biochemical role, interacting with proteins in some way. But a new study says it takes only about 8% of our non-protein-coding genes to make us human. This is the percentage of genes that are ‘conserved’ by the human species: change one of these genes, and you’ll alter the fitness of the individual. These genes evolve slowly (although not as slowly as protein-coding genes). The rest of the genome is free to drift about and see what happens.

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers wonders why, when you tame a canine species (thus reducing the size of its adrenal gland), you automatically get floppy ears, spotted coats, and neoteny. PZ Myers says of genes, “everything is tangled together in interacting patterns of connectivity, so you often get unexpected results from single inputs.” A new paper argues that an embryonic population of cells known as the neural crest explains why domestication causes changes throughout a mammal’s body.

Watch as Marvel Takes Over the Galaxy

Like Rocket—a genetically engineered, cybernetically enhanced raccoon—Guardians of the Galaxy is a strange beast. Wanting to make a little cash, Rocket and his talking tree-buddy Groot try to collect a bounty on that guy from Parks and Recreation (and Zero Dark Thirty [Chris Pratt]). But the human, who wishes he were known as Star-Lord, not only has a 40,000 unit bounty on his head, but a softball-sized orb of power that every bigwig in the galaxy wants to steal or buy. Gamora, a femme fatale working for her supervillain step-daddy, crashes the party as Rocket and Groot try to bag Star-Lord, and all four go to jail, where they meet a musclebound literalist named Drax (whose stilted take on English sounds like those foreign dudes from Family Guy). Following in the wake of critically acclaimed comic book adaptations like Iron Man and The Avengers, Guardians represents an emphatic stake by Marvel Studios on the genre of comedy. It’s still a sprawling action movie, complete with boilerplate plot, senseless acts of violence, and large-scale digital destruction. But make no mistake: Guardians of the Galaxy is a riot, and Marvel’s master plan to take over Hollywood is well under way.

Much of the levity of the movie comes from the unremitting irony of its soundtrack.  Taken alone this collection of songs might be the most pandering soundtrack in the history of cinema. But the songs are tearily justified by the script, and it’s hard not to be amused by scenes of alien worlds and sleek technology overlaid with some of the catchiest songs of the seventies and eighties. Most are played for maximum dissonance, such as “The Piña Colada Song” during the team’s desperate escape from prison. One track sets the mood for a romantic moment—until Star-Lord starts talking about Kevin Bacon and Gamora kicks him in the balls.  The montage preceding the conventionally epic final battle is set to “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, which serves as a reminder that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s punk rock (although Joan Jett is still in there somewhere). Like the Runaways, this film shows betrays a crass yet calculated commercialism, the raison d’etre of some some white male hegemonies in L.A. It fails the Bechdel test, it features little racial diversity, it suffers from obvious white savior syndrome as Star-Lord ‘dudes’ and ‘bros’ his way through the quadrant and finally wins the heart of the lady. Brutal violence against blue-collar humanoids is perpetrated with nary a moral qualm, despite young Star-Lord, in a 1988 prologue, standing up to frog-smushers at school and getting a black eye for his trouble.

Meanwhile, the strength of the film emerges from the interactions of the characters. Just like in The Avengers, banter between well-drawn team members saves the film from the meaninglessness of its blockbuster body plan. Rocket Raccoon becomes the surprising anchor of the story; he is an ingenious and violent freak, a perpetual outsider, a victim of ridicule and prejudice, an angry, embittered anthropomorph who ultimately doesn’t mind being pet a little. Voiced to great effect by Bradley Cooper, Rocket is not only visually believable, but emotionally credible as well. Rocket’s connection with his magical tree friend is the deepest in the story. Yet Vin Diesel, though well-billed as Groot, could probably have left his voice work on an answering machine.

As for the science, its totally non-existent. The universe is said to have formed from six singularities each leaving behind a differently-colored ‘infinity stone’—which might satisfy a cabalist, but not an astronomer. The purple stone, contained within Star-Lord’s orb, propels the plot: it destroys all organic matter on contact, oh and also it can only be wielded by beings of supreme power.  Luckily Star-Lord’s mom had sex with an angel and he’s only half human, allowing him, with some extra help from his team, to save a world that looks suspiciously like Elysium (or, for that matter, SHIELD HQ)—which is to say, so rich and polished that it could only have been built on the back of extreme poverty and ghettoization. Star-Lord’s angel DNA may also explain why he can space-walk without a suit. Of course, the term ‘science fiction’ is hardly applicable to a film like this. Its closest cinematic relative is The Fifth Element (1997). We’re talking the iconography of SF taken to extremes of fantasy and humor.

Crucially, despite the trappings of space opera, this film is set in 2014, and Earth is somewhere in the distance. This places the Guardians into the same diegetic space and time as the Avengers, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. The prospects for character and genre recombination in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are dizzying. With principal actors like Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, rising superstars like Chris Pratt, venerable old pros like Glenn Close and Robert Redford (in the surprisingly astute security-state criticism Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plus talented and familiar actors everywhere you look, Marvel has the star power to back its pantheon of freaks and heroes. Next to join the milieu is comedian Paul Rudd in Ant-Man, which truly boggles the mind. We can only be thankful that the X-Men and Spiderman have their own ‘cinematic universes’ to inhabit (Marvel having sold the rights to other studios).

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read the comics: if you like movies, you might love what Marvel is doing. At a time when visual effects artists can accomplish anything, cinema is the next level of comic books as a medium for making fantastical stories and images. Some of Marvel’s films have been amazing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. The audience agrees: applauding the end of the film, then sitting through the credits to catch a glimpse of the future—which also walks like a duck, but quacks like something entirely different.

MCU Must See:
Iron Man (2008)
The Avengers (2012)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)