Monday, March 11, 2013

What Should Everyone Know About The Andromeda Strain?

What Everyone Should Know About the Andromeda Strain

Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is the science of displaying the spectra of the masses of the molecules comprising a sample of material. It is used for determining the elemental composition of a sample, the masses of particles and of molecules, and for showing the chemical structures of molecules, such as peptides and other chemical compounds. Mass spectrometry works by ionizing chemical compounds to generate charged molecules or molecule fragments and measuring their mass-to-charge ratios. In a typical MS procedure:
  1. A sample (which may be solid, liquid, or gas) is ionized.
  2. The ions are separated according to their mass-to-charge ratio. This is the key step.
  3. The ions are detected by some mechanism capable of detecting energetic charged particles.
  4. The signal is processed into the spectra of the masses of the particles of that sample.

Viral Mutations

The Andromeda Strain virus mutated from a virulent and deadly form, to a benign polymer-eating form. Viruses mutate through errors in the copying of their genetic code in a host cell. The resultant errors are continued when the new virus infects another host. This occurs rapidly compared to other organisms due to a lack of any sort of checking or correcting of genetic material. But, because the mutations occur in replication in a host cell, outside a host cell, it can't modify or change until it gets to another host.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Did We Feel Like When Reading This Book?

Movie Clip: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Plot Summary and Character Descriptions

Main Characters

Dr. Jeremy Stone - Professor of Bacteriology at the University of California at Berkeley; a Nobel Prize winner.
Dr. Charles Burton - Professor of pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine
Dr. Peter Leavitt - Clinical microbiologist; suffers from epilepsy
Dr. Mark Hall - Medical doctor and surgeon.  Hall is the "Odd Man" and he is given the key that can disarm the nuclear bomb that would wipeout the laboratory in the case of a contamination. 

Plot Summary

  1. A military space capsule lands in Piedmont, Arizona.  Radio connection with the capsule is lost, and a team sent to go recover the satellite find every member of the town it landed in dead, except for two people--an old man and an infant.  The survivors and the satellite are taken to an underground laboratory to be studied by the Wildfire team (a government sponsored team of scientists that counters extraterrestrial biological infestation).
  2. The scientists believe the satellite returned with a deadly microorganism that kills by nearly instantaneous lethal blood clotting. Upon investigating the town, the Wildfire team discovers that the residents either died in mid-stride or went insane and committed bizarre suicides. Two Piedmont inhabitants, the sick, Sterno-addicted, Peter Jackson; and the constantly bawling infant, Jamie Ritter, are biologic opposites who somehow survived the organism.
  3. Further investigation determines that the bizarre deaths were caused by a crystal-structured, extraterrestrial microbe on a meteor that crashed into the satellite, knocking it from orbit. The microbe contains chemical elements required for terrestrial life and appears to have a crystalline structure, but lacks DNA, RNA, proteins, and amino acids, yet it directly transforms matter to energy and vice versa. 
  4. The microbe is code named "Andromeda". It mutates with each growth cycle, changing its biologic properties. The scientists learn that Andromeda grows only within a narrow pH range; in a too-acid or too-basic growth medium, it will not multiply — Andromeda's pH range is 7.39–7.43, like that of human blood. That is why the old man and the screaming baby survived: both had abnormal blood pH. However, by the time the scientists realize that, Andromeda's current mutation degrades the plastic shield and escapes its containment. Trapped in an Andromeda-contaminated laboratory, Dr. Burton believes he is on the verge of death. Burton survives because Andromeda has already mutated to nonlethal form.
  5. The self-destruct atomic bomb is automatically armed when it detects a containment breach, triggering its detonation countdown to incinerate all exo-biological diseases. As the bomb arms, the scientists realize that given Andromeda's ability to generate matter directly from energy, the organism would feed, reproduce, and ultimately benefit from anatomic explosion.
  6. To halt the atomic detonation, Hall must insert his special key to an emergency substation anywhere in Wildfire. Unfortunately, he is trapped in a section with no substation. He must navigate Wildfire's obstacle course of automatic defenses to reach a working substation on an upper level. He barely disarms the bomb in time before all the air is evacuated from the deepest level of the Wildfire complex. Andromeda eventually mutates to a benign form and is suspected to have migrated to the upper atmosphere, where the oxygen content is lower, better suiting Andromeda's growth.

What Was the Author Attempting to Teach His Audience?

Some of the themes we noticed after reading the Andromeda Strain were:

  • The danger of technology.  The Project Scoop (designed by the army) was designed to find new biological agents that could be beneficial in designing sophisticated new technology.  But if we can't control the foreign agents, how can they be utilized as weaponry? In the end, the hope of designing high-level weaponry only endangered its own people.
  • Man vs. Nature.  The arrival of the Andromeda Strain was a true look at the disadvantage man has against a foreign substance.  The Scoop scientists had to race the andromeda strain to figure out what was happening before it attacked them.  The quick mutation rate of andromeda was a potentially fatal factor for the team.
  • Human Error.  The first example of human error is displayed when the townspeople in Piedmont, Arizona bring the Scoop capsule to the doctor, and he makes the unadvised decision to open it.  If he had contacted the army, the deaths of almost all the townspeople could have been avoided.  Another nearly fatal error was that a substation was not placed in every corridor of the lab, creating a huge problem for Hall when he has to find a way to disengage the bomb.  

What are the Bioethical Issues Surrounding This Subject?

Bioethical Issues

The Odd Man Hypothesis is proposed to be the idea that in a life-or-death crisis situation affecting multiple people, single men are more likely to make the “right” decision. This is applied in the book to the destruction of the Wildfire facility, which would kill all the personnel. This raises several issues. 
  • First, should the lives of the members of the entire facility in the hands of one man? If the people gave their consent, then it could be considered okay, but if they only found out about it after the start of the project, then they would be unknowingly entrusting their lives to him. 
  • Second, can simple statistics be used to decide who to pin their lives on? While the hypothesis makes sense on paper, it still leaves gaps in its dependability when in practice. 
  • It does add up that a person unattached to other people would be able to approach the situation objectively, but can it really be relied upon in deadly circumstances? 
  • If your life was in the hands of this "best decision maker" how would you feel? Do you agree with the results of the study? 

What are Some of the Possible Positive/Negative Outcomes of this Kind of Outbreak on Human's Present and Future History?

Space Craft Sanitization

  • Clean Rooms, heat, chemicals, and radiation are commonly used today
  • Low-temp vaporized hydrogen peroxide treatment in development
  • The Apollo missions used a quarantine system, using low pressure filtered air in a trailer until tests could be conducted on personnel or samples. This was considered effective, but if a contagion went unnoticed, there would be nothing to kill it or contain it after quarantine.
  • Reentry typically effectively sterilizes external of spacecraft, but not completely and does not affect inside.
  • The Extra-terrestrial exposure law gave NASA the ability to quarantine people or items that have been in direct contact with or inside the atmospheric envelope of another celestial body, or in direct contact with another of such items. (

The Risk Taken

The Project Scoop had potential to bring in knowledge of outer space life, and new biological agents promising to the human race, but the project also could have brought back a deadly virus that could wipe out the human race.  In The Andromeda Strain, the risk was taken, and it almost cost the lives of millions of people.  If the building did explode, the andromeda strain would have multiplied in the energy from the explosion and spread throughout the world, faster than it could be combatted.