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SciBar: Zombification

4 November 15 words: Gav Squires
If you're ever in the Vat, you might be lucky enough to stumble across a load of intellectuals chatting about what it is that makes them tick
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photo: Dan Gilliland

We start off with a risk analysis – luckily for us, Sean has studied the key texts in this area namely Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. To survive it helps if you're black or female – the Scream rules don’t apply when it comes to zombies. Also, scientists don’t make it to the end credits, not good news for the SciBar audience.

However, if we do want to go out and experiment on zombies, we're going to need something that gives better protection than a lab coat. Namely a fencing outfit. Not only is it the right colour (white) but it's better for running away in than something such as Kevlar motorcycle gear. However, while a regular human can't bite through your fencing uniform, what if a zombie has a stronger bite than a regular human? Also, they don't have perfect teeth – they could be sharper. So you're safer but there's no guarantee.

There are three key things that we need to know

·         What is the agent of zombification?

·         How is it transmitted?

·         What are zombies?

Looking at this last point, zombies are not natural monsters – they’re not psychopathic. They aren't consequential monsters like the phantom of the opera or the invisible man – they aren't the result of an experience that they've been through. There is no external will controlling them in the way of a mummy or a golem. Zombies are not converted like vampires or werewolves these are augmented humans but like them zombies are dead and are possibly immortal. They also aren't put together or created like Frankenstein's monster. However, they are quite similar to the jiangshi, literally a "stiff corpse". While they are seen as chi-sucking vampires they are actually more similar to zombies.

Nowadays, zombies are everywhere – films, TV, video games. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta have even produced a document called ‘Zombie Pandemic’ that details how to deal with an outbreak. The US military also has a zombie survival plan - CONPLAN 8888.

There aren't just one type of zombie. There are weaponised zombies as seen in The Crazies, vegetarian zombies in the game Plants vs Zombies and space zombies seen in Night of the Living Dead. We've seen fast zombies in 28 Days Later and World War Z and slow zombies in Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead. Return of the Living Dead was the first film where we saw zombies wanting to eat brains.

Despite being a popular trope, there is still so much that we don't know about zombies. Can zombies think? Is there rudimentary thinking or a memory at work? Can they process higher emotions? On the latter point, it's probably a no – zombies are after you brain not your heart (always remember, humans are chased while zombies are chaste). There seems to be evidence of an invasion leading to a loss of function in the zombie brain. Are there fewer neurons in their brains or is there less connectivity?

Maybe zombification has a fungal cause. Cordyceps are a fungus that changes the behaviour of an invertebrate in order to spread its spores. For example, an ant infected will climb to the top of a tree. Extending this hypothesis – maybe we have a symbiosis of a fungus and a neuron. Perhaps the fungus grows down the neuron and we end up with a worse copy (and this is what zombies are – a worse copy of humans). So, death precedes a downgrade.

How could we tackle this hypothesis in a post-apocalyptic lab? These days there are affordable personal genomics tests available. However, rather than genomes, we would be better off looking at transcriptomics. This looks at the expression levels of RNA.

However, in order to do any tests, we need samples from people before and after they are zombified so that we can compare them. However, there are still a number of things that we need to consider about our samples and these will determine what kind of testing that we can do:

·         Equivalency? - Are the samples a fair representation? Gender?

·         Replicates? - Ease? Cost?

·         Suitability of samples? - Which tissues?

·         Degradation? - Is the tissue normal? How has it been stored?

The other issue is that you are only 1/10th human. The rest of you is made up of lots and lots of bacteria. Maybe it's one of these bacteria that's responsible for the zombification.

Even as we test our zombie samples, there are a lot of questions that we don't know the answers to:

·         Why do zombies last so long? Are they immortal? Sometimes we see them visibly decay

·         Is there anything but brains in their diets?

·         Do they have a circulatory system?

·         Do they sleep? Do they hibernate?

·         What about zombie perception? How can they see and hear?

Why are zombie tropes so popular? It's all based on the fear of us all being the same - no longer being an individual. When you think about it, there's no real difference to people that ignore us and zombies. The fear of zombies is the fear of toxic attack and the fear of the inescapable horde.

There is one main flaw in the fungus hypothesis though. Zombification occurs far faster than fungal infection. Could it be that it just effects something that is already in us? Could it be that we're already zombies?

SciBar will return to The Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 25 November where Hannah Latham from Rolls Royce will talk about Fusion Power: A Sunny Prospect or a Stormy Future?

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