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  • Alex Cloherty

Aliens on Earth

Hello dear readers,

Today I have another draft of a 3-minute pitch for a science communication competition, FameLab, that I am heading to this fall. As for the last one, comments and critiques are highly welcome! I hope you enjoy it. So, here goes...

Are you familiar with the 1979 hit sci-fi film, Alien? If you haven't seen it, I suggest that you pause this and spend the next 117 minutes being blown away. But, why am I telling you this? Well, it turns out that the plot of Alien is a great analogy for infection with the novel SARS coronavirus. In case you're rusty on the plot of the movie, let me explain. There will be spoilers, but the film is more than 40 years old so if you haven't seen it yet, that's on you, not me.

In a nutshell, the story is about the crew of a space vessel, who land on a remote moon after receiving a mysterious transmission. Some of the crew head out to investigate. One of them, Officer Kane, has the dubious honour of discovering Alien eggs, one of which hatches and promptly (spoiler!) attaches itself to his face. Now, if we turn to the virus, like the Alien face-hugger, SARS-CoV-2 needs to first attach to our cells in order to actually infect them. The virus needs to latch on, and then it can get inside us - inside our very cells, where it will incubate, and then eventually make more of itself so it can spread over the entire galaxy. The difference is, while the face-hugger, well, hugs faces, SARS-CoV-2 attaches to proteins on the surface of our cells.

But that's not the end of it - both SARS-CoV-2 and the Alien have more tricks up their sleeves. Let's start with Alien. After it latches onto Kane's face, eventually it falls off and Kane seems to be fine. He's let back on to the spaceship, and the crew takes off. However, we find out later that the Alien evidently migrated from Kane's mouth down to his abdomen. Some call the more mature Alien form that later bursts out of Kane a "chest-burster", but I would argue that it's better classified as a "gut-erupter". And there is the second similarity - the coronavirus, like many other viruses, also hijacks a sort of stomach for its own benefit: the stomach of the cell.

Just like us on the macro level, each of our cells needs to digest nutrients. They do this in a tiny little micro-stomach called an "autophagosome". Like the Alien, viruses can direct themselves into these stomachs, where they can hide from immune defences - just like the Alien hid inside Officer Kane to sneak onto the spaceship. Once it's ready, the virus can enter gut-erupter mode, burst out of the autophagosome, and start wreaking havoc in your cells - like the Alien eventually does aboard the spaceship. In the movie, there were two strategies to avoid this outcome: 1) block the alien before it hugs your face (like wearing a mask), or 2) destroy the alien after it bursts out of the abdomen of your colleague (like getting a vaccine). In our lab, we are filling a gap: 3) stymie the alien after it's hugged your face, and before it bursts out of your abdomen. We use our knowledge of autophagosomes, the stomachs of your cells, to identify drugs that can tweak the digestive system so that the virus is simply unable to burst. To do this, we actually grow mini-guts in the lab, to screen for these drugs. It's a beautiful symmetry between macro and micro.

To conclude, this novel coronavirus has made all of us feel like that spaceship crew - isolated, potentially exposed, and scared about death by infection. Tools like masks and vaccines are immensely important - they help block the virus before it can really infect us. But what we are doing, is trying to fight back against the virus once it's already made its way inside. In other words, we are saving Officer Kane.

Until next week... Watch Alien if you haven't seen it ;)

~ Alex

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