Popular Mechanics take a scientific look at the human-manufactured parasite depicted in 1.07 “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones”:
Can a heart-sized, seven pound parasite exist in a human?
When FBI agent Mitchell Loeb collapses in pain, he’s sent to the emergency room. Only after breaking open his chest cavity do the doctors see what caused his heart to stop: a strange, almost-otherworldly alligator-mouthed parasite wrapped around the organ. When mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop examines the parasite, he determines that it is a typical water-borne organism that lives in the intestines of animals.
“The typical parasite isn’t typical,” says Dr. David Williams, an associate professor of immunology and biology at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. “Parasites are very diverse. From single-cell organisms to worms in whales that are 5 to 6 meters long, they are not related to each other except for the fact that they live inside a host and do harm to that host.”
And according to Henry Bishop, a microbiologist in the diagnostic laboratory within the division of parasitic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and no relation to Fringe’s fictional resident mad scientist), some parasites are so complex that they have digestive and reproductive tracts that are easily visible. Tapeworms that live in the small intestine, for instance, can be more than 20 feet long.
So, does that mean that wormlike organism on Fringe is possible?
Both Williams and John Janovy, Jr., the Varner professor of biological sciences at University of Nebraska Lincoln, can’t come up with anything like it.
“There’s certainly no human parasites that would be like that,” says Janovy. “The only ones that invade the heart are dog heartworms. They fill up the cavities inside the heart. There’s also microscopic parasites that invade muscle cells of the heart, but I don’t know of anything that could attach or surround the heart that you can see with the unaided eye.”
That doesn’t mean real-life parasites aren’t Fringe-worthy. Janovy mentions Naegleria fowleri, the “brain-eating amoeba,” and the fatal primary amebic meningoencephalitis as some dramatic contenders. (We suggest a Morgellon’s-centered episode).
Can a parasite attach itself to someone’s internal organs?
In the emergency room, the doctors note that the larger-than-life parasite has attached itself to the FBI agent’s heart—and will not let go.
“Certain parasites can indeed attach themselves to internal organs,” says Henry Bishop of the CDC. “Tapeworms and hookworms attach themselves to the lining of the small intestines. They both have hooks or ‘teeth’ that literally clamp down on the mucosa.”
Williams agrees. He notes that this particular parasite was living in the peritoneum—the space around the heart—and although such a dwelling location is possible, the actual shape of it was unusual. Those appendages that looked like teeth or claws were digging into the agent’s heart, but no human parasites that have that attribute. “They are not really teeth but extensions of their cuticle,” Williams says. “There are fish parasites that actually attach in a similar way, but much smaller.”
And as for the roots of the parasite creeping up the IV tube, that’s far from likely. Not only did those roots not look like anything from a parasite, Williams says that the timescale for growth is much slower than the hours or—at most—days in which it happened on Fringe.
Is it possible to genetically manipulate a parasite to attack the heart?
Just by looking at the parasite, Dr. Walter Bishop could tell that it was partially organic but was the result of genetic manipulation. After putting the organism’s tissue through some DNA analysis, he discovered a particular sequence, ZFT, had been added to the parasite genetic code.
“That’s possible,” Williams explains. “Less than one percent of the human genome is made up of genes. The rest is all this DNA that we don’t know what its function is yet. You can put sequences of, say, junk DNA in there. If you put it in a region that is not critical for the survival of the organism, it can work to change the physiological properties.”
In the case of this parasite’s purpose, it’s a bit unclear whether the ZFT genetic modification was the mechanism for transforming it or simply a hidden message to decode—though, based on the parasite’s improbable appearance, a genetic transformation could be decent a fringe-science explanation.
“It’s one thing for a world-class molecular biologist to even contemplate doing that,” says Janovy, laughing. “But your chances of success are virtually nill. It opens up the door to the literary world to imagine ‘what if?’ But in practical terms, genetic manipulation is not as easy, quick or damaging as that.”