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How The Thing Works

The "Science" Behind The Thing

"A story of modern science that challenges imagination!" That phrase is splashed across the screen of the trailer for the original version of "The Thing," but including the word science in any serious way with regards to a human/plant hybrid is a stretch. Or, as one character famously proclaims during a particularly tense scene, "An intellectual carrot ... the mind boggles."

"Is it human, or inhuman, earthly, or unearthly? Baffling questions, astounding questions, that not even the world's greatest scientific minds can answer." Maybe, as "The Thing" trailer dramatically suggests, there really is no way to be sure whether a smart form of plant life could exist.

You might think that with all of the genetic engineering happening throughout the world, there would be all sorts of ways to cross a human with some type of plant life. Or maybe it could happen simply by accident. It wasn't long ago, in fact, that a Russian girl was supposedly pricked by a cactus and later began growing thorns in her arm as a result. It was an Internet hoax, of course [source: Bioephemera].

But could a plant/human hybrid ever happen? Well, there's no accounting for weird, intelligent and parasitic tomatoes arriving from the far reaches of the galaxy, of course, but current scientific technology here on Earth has its limitations.

Jennifer Bartlett, a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Iowa, says that on a fundamental level, plants and mammals are just too different. "They have different types of cell walls, and they produce and store energy differently, which means that they make extremely different kinds of enzymes, and they have different organelles." She adds that plants make whole classes of molecules that mammalian cells do not. 

In essence, the elemental pieces of the organisms just wouldn't fit together. The plant molecules would be trying to do one thing, while the animal molecules would be doing something else entirely.

Even with some extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, blending mammal and plant cells would be difficult, if not impossible. Bartlett says, "To do something like that, you would have to introduce a whole suite of genes into the genome and make sure they get expressed at the right time during development and in the right kinds of cells, and all without creating other problems in the human genome, like inadvertently causing some kind of cancer, which would be extremely hard to do."

Ultimately, it will be a long time before we have the technical know-how to manipulate the human genome that skillfully. So we'll likely be forever waiting for insidious cornfields to rise up and take over our cities and our bodies, and for parasitic-plant aliens to descend from the heavens and wreak havoc.

In the meantime, though, it never hurts to be cautious and observant. As the diligent reporter in the original Thing movie said to his colleagues as he reported news of the Alaskan chlorophyll catastrophe, "Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies."

Can't get enough of The Thing? On the next page, check out more Thing-related trivia.