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April 9, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends

Minor spoilers for Annihilation follow.

As a biology graduate and a fan of psychological horror flicks, Annihilation could only be more my jam if they sold it in jars. Despite a few missteps in execution (why doesn’t anyone in the film wear gloves?!?), director Alex Garland has made one of the most scientist-friendly films since Nolan’s Interstellar. Which got me thinking: are the events depicted in Annihilation actually that weird compared to nature?

The closest thing we have in real life to the film’s weird zone, the Shimmer, is the radioactive area around Chernobyl, which was the site of a catastrophic nuclear disaster in 1986. While the human populated areas have been evacuated, scientists have been using camera traps to document the remaining animals in the region for years, seeing how the deer, moose, foxes, wolves, and other fauna who reclaimed the once industrial areas have adapted to the radioactivity. But thus far, their mutations are less like growing a third eye like the fish in The Simpsons, and more like debilitating cataracts in the local vole populations. Any long-term genetic change from radiation is difficult to measure, as most of the animal populations move around in groups, meaning the time spent in exposure time varies. Also, a species ability to tolerate radiation varies from animal to animal, as we’re mostly used to understanding the effects it can have humans.

Obviously, the real spectacle worth the price of admission* for Annihilation are the hybrid creatures. In the Shimmer, biological laws are “refracted”, creating strange genetic fusions of both animal and plant life; some mesmerising (plants with flowers from multiple species), some terrifying (that goddamn bear). But the most realistic of the film’s creatures is one of its more benign.

Around the midpoint, one character encounters a deer with flowers growing out of its antlers (its “plantlers”, if you will). Animals form mutually beneficial relationships with plants all the time. Algae is the usual partner, as some animals like sloths allow algae to grow on them as camouflage. The emerald green sea slug takes this one step further, incorporating genes from ingested algae into its body by fusing the algae’s chloroplasts (the cell organs responsible for photosynthesis) into its own stomach wall. This process, known as functional gene transfer, enables the slug to make energy from sunlight just like a plant. What’s more, the slug’s offspring can inherit the genes to replicate this process, provided they eat their greens.

Even more bizarrely, a species of spotted salamander was recently found to grow algae inside its own cells, a process known as endosymbiosis. The algae normally grows around the salamander eggs in a symbiotic relationship, but whatever lead to it crossing the barrier of the salamander’s cells, as well as whatever benefits it gives the salamander isn’t immediately clear. Given this is a very new discovery, more research is needed.

In any case, the film’s scientific advisor, geneticist Dr. Adam Rutherford, expounded that in the realm of biology, the events of Annihilation could barely count as artistic license.

We’ve only explored a tiny portion of life on Earth,” explained Dr. Rutherford. “Just because we got all the basic rules of biology in place, to assume we’re just filling in the gaps is so premature. Every week we’re discovering things that were simply inconceivable the week before.”

Even scientists agree: biology is just one big horror movie waiting to be uncovered.

*Or rather, Netflix viewing, because certain industry cowards don’t think female-led sci-fi films warrant a worldwide theatrical release.

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