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The Andromeda Strain: Science That Isn’t (totally) Fictional

The control room in the Andromeda Strain movie

The Andromeda Strain is a classic science fiction movie based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name.

As far as sci-fi films go, The Andromeda Strain is notable for being plausible, scientifically speaking. The film closely follows the Crichton novel, much to its credit. And while The Andromeda Strain movie isn’t perfectly accurate, it nails the gestalt of dealing with an unknown biological phenomenon.

What’s The Andromeda Strain About?

The premise of The Andromeda Strain is relatively straightforward: a government satellite lands in the remote town of Piedmont, New Mexico, bringing with it a mysterious extraterrestrial disease which kills the members of the town. Following the US Government’s attempt to retrieve the satellite and accidental discovery of the dead townsfolk, an elite infectious disease team is activated and assembled to combat the disease. Research on the disease occurs in a nearby laboratory complex that is heavily secured and equipped with premiere biosafety systems in order to prevent any contamination of the outside area in the event of a mishap.

Door in the research facility in the Andromeda Strain movieAs a final insurance against pathogens escaping from the secured laboratory, a nuclear warhead is built into the lab’s structure, ensuring sterility in the event of catastrophic contamination. As far as the premise of the film goes, there’s nothing fictional about the danger of extraterrestrial pathogens nor the government’s likely first response to detection of such pathogens. Of course, the lab’s nuclear warhead self-destruct rigging is an embellishment–as far as we know.

Realism in The Andromeda Strain Movie

In the real world, NASA views the issue of extraterrestrial pathogens as twofold: first, for many years leading up to and following the moon landing, returning equipment and personnel were quarantined for a period of time after splashdown in order to ensure that nothing hazardous returned. Second, space-bound equipment and personnel are kept as sterile as possible so as to avoid contamination of foreign celestial bodies with microbes from Earth–an area of particular concern in environments where NASA is interested in looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life, such as on Mars.

Keeping with the film’s tradition of realism is its depiction of scientists, if not the scientific method itself. While the acting is at times leaden, for scientists, it fits perfectly. Each of the four main characters are dead ringers for real scientists: stoical, conservative in making factual claims, skeptical of politicians, curious, hard-working, and steeped in a sense of wonder about the world. In numerous scenes, the scientists are seen allowing their curiosity and wonder eclipse the fear of being surrounded by death caused by an unknown pathogen. Perhaps as a testament to good acting rather than good directing, even the body language that the scientists use while thinking about Andromeda is true to life.

The dead town in the Andromeda Strain movieEarly in the film when two members of the team are clad in hazmat suits exploring the deserted town filled with dead bodies while searching for the satellite, they find the corpse of the town’s doctor (a fellow scientist) sprawled at the foot of the satellite, having opened it in innocent wonder of what was inside. Not to be shown up by the indomitable curiosity of the dead doctor, the protagonist immediately squats down next to the corpse and takes a sample of tissue. As usual, a scientist can’t bear to be separated from the raw data.

During the team’s attempts to understand the disease by examining the satellite, two survivors, and corpses, they find a microbe which they dub “Andromeda”. Andromeda quickly kills anything living that is exposed to it, appearing to be able to travel through the air as well as via direct contact. Because of how dangerous Andromeda is, merely working to understand the disease requires a significant number of precautions.

Working Conditions in The Andromeda Strain

The working conditions of the scientists are remarkably accurate. In real life terms, the research facility would be certified as having “Biosafety level 4”, the highest level of biosafety. Known as BSL4 (or BSL1-3 respectively), this level of biosafety indicates that the laboratory has sufficient safety measures that are capable of handling pathogens of unknown or highly dangerous properties. For reference, HIV is researched in a BSL2 environment whereas tuberculosis is dealt with in BSL3 and ebola in BSL4.
In keeping with the maximum biosafety level, all interactions with Andromeda require air-supplied hazmat suits, multiple pairs of gloves, contained rooms with airlocks, robot manipulator arms, and airflow systems which work toward containment of any airborne particulates in each room. Each of these safety features are used in real life laboratories, and often for relatively tame diseases compared to Andromeda.

Looking at the actual Andromeda Strain

As the scientific team continues to soldier onward in studying Andromeda, Andromeda mutates and begins consuming synthetic materials. Around the time of the mutation, the scientific team analyzes the structure of Andromeda, finding it to be devoid of certain expected features such as genetic material or cellular building blocks. Using this information, the team discovers that Andromeda exchanges energy and mass freely and perfectly efficiently, allowing it to consume any ambient energy. The team goes as far as claiming that Andromeda will be able to consume the energy released from a nuclear explosion, should the facility become contaminated and self-destruct.

Though it is effectively impossible that any microbe could survive being in the center of a nuclear explosion, we can infer a few likely things about Andromeda that fit with reality. Andromeda seems to be a prion of some sort, meaning that it is a protein that can self-replicate when in a host. Though the discovery of prions was relatively new when the film was made, Andromeda fits the bill because it has no genetic material, is too large to be a virus, and can make use of ambient energy to assist its propagation.

It’s also unlikely that a prion could mutate as quickly as Andromeda does in the final sequences of the film, but there’s still room for realism in the team’s “cure” for Andromeda.

Via mishap and observation (trial and error’s less-graceful cousin and a ubiquitous modality of scientific inquiry), the team discovers that Andromeda can only reproduce when in a narrow range of acidity or alkalinity conditions. This makes perfect sense, given that prions, being proteins, can only undergo their process of self-assembly within a similarly narrow range, as the chemical reactions required for their folding can only occur in that range.

With the newfound knowledge that alkaline conditions prevent Andromeda from propagating, the team concludes the crisis by getting the government to help wash Andromeda and the horribly contaminated laboratory with sea water, which is alkaline. While it’s implausible that Andromeda could have ever escaped a modern BSL4 facility, it’s possible that a 1971-grade facility would be constructed in a way that would permit escape.

Final Thoughts on the Andromeda Strain Movie

The conclusion of the film is ominous, with Andromeda mutating a final time. Perhaps this final mutation is a bit too small of an after note, given the movie’s prior tradition of very slow pacing and plot development. Of course, this is fiction, and it’s unlikely that there would be a sequence of events that occur exactly as The Andromeda Strain movie describes. Technical accuracy and scrupulous withholding of biological details play in the film’s favor and help it stand out as a film in which reality is a feature of the storytelling rather than an obstacle to work around.

Featured Images: Paramount Pictures

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1 Response

  1. Edward

    One of my all time faves, I have seen the movie about 5 times and read the book when I was in high school. I then later became a fan of Crichton. I always thought of the undergrown lab was a cool thing and how the scientist were depicted in the movie was very good. I have never seen the A&E remake and I don’t think I ever will. I do love the review of this movie by the author.

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