The field of microbionecrology was born in October, 1968, with a unique urgency that focused the brightest scientific minds in the world upon a problem previously considered to be confined to the realm of mythology and the grimmest of fairy tales: the dead returning to life and preying upon the living. It is worth noting that while biology and microbiology are both legitimate fields of scientific inquiry, microbionecrology stands on its own as the investigation of the cytology, metabolism, and microbiome of the undead in hopes that understanding will eventually bring an end to resurrection. No accredited university has ever offered a degree in bionecrology, or the study of the living dead, while microbionecrology has been recognized as a post-doctoral specialization since the mid-1970s, and the first undergraduate programs in the field as such were organized in the wake of the outbreak of 1979, when it could no longer be argued that the outbreak of 1968 was a unique event, never to be repeated. Rapid advancements in the last 20 years have obscured the early controversies that dominated the field, starting with the correlative/causative fallacy when many early researchers took for granted that radiation caused the initial outbreak in the eastern U.S. and Canada (Grimes 1968, Dodge 1969, Pauling 1970), the Sixth Kingdom Hypothesis invoking global homeostasis as the invisible hand behind the advent of an evolutionarily novel organism (Lovelock and Margulis 1974, Margulis 1981, Margulis 1982, Margulis and Bermudes 1985, Margulis and Fester 1991, Margulis and Schwarz 1998, Margulis and Dolan 2002), and the possibility that a chemical agent could reanimate the dead (Russo 1985, Fleischmann and Pons 1989). Unable to fulfill Koch’s Postulates, researchers looking for a bacterium, virus, protist, or fungus — a recognizable pathogen that could be cultured ex vivo — sometimes struggled to find funding. Not until the 1990s did a new generation of researchers equipped with a new generation of technology rediscover pioneering early work (notably Woese 1969, Woese and Fox 1977, Marshall and Warren 1982) and begin to unravel the problem. While no cure is on the horizon, perhaps not surprisingly as this would first and foremost require curing death itself and the myriad insults to the human body that can lead to it, in recent years research in the field has begun to have real-world impacts.
1968-1978: The Lost Decade
In the first months of 1968, NASA was working towards landing men on the moon; the Tet offensive, the loss of the 10,000th U.S. aircraft, and the destruction of the village of My Lai occurred in Vietnam; 55,000 Army and National Guard troops were deployed onto the streets of major U.S. cities to maintain order following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; President Johnson announced he would not stand for reelection after failing to win a majority in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, while Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy won 42% of the vote on an antiwar platform; a Delta Airlines passenger jet was hijacked and forced to land in Cuba; and the Green Bay Packers won the second Super Bowl championship game.
In the first months of 1969, the Apollo program was cancelled; the United States concluded a peace treaty with the People’s Republic of Vietnam and began the repatriation of 7738 POWs, the majority of them Marines engaged in rearguard actions who were forced to surrender after the airfields at Dong Ha and Danang were overrun during the evacuation of U.S. forces; over 500,000 armed troops were deployed across the eastern U.S. to maintain order as the risen dead sporadically emerged from subways, forests, and other refuges; President Johnson was unanimously confirmed for his second full term in office by the 427 surviving members of the House of Representatives and lifted martial law west of the Mississippi River except in his home state of Texas, where National Guard units still had nearly a thousand square miles cordoned off around Houston and the smoldering ruins of Galveston, razed for the second time in the same century; a Delta Airlines 707 was the first scheduled flight to lift off from the East Coast when passenger service resumed in the wake of the crisis; there has never been another Super Bowl, and even the World Series, after surviving the outbreaks of 1979, 1984-85, and 1989, finally went dark in 2004.
The investigation of the undead formally undertaken by the government of the United States in 1969 has often been compared to the Manhattan Project, but in fact it was substantially larger and better funded, if more diffuse and less well organized. One scientist who was involved in both endeavors observed that the internal lines of communication were comparable, meaning the programs were highly compartmentalized and communication between teams was discouraged, if not punishable under national security statutes. Because the undertaking was both bureaucratically dispersed across as many as seven federal agencies and physically dispersed across the U.S. and Canada in facilities ranging from university labs and medical schools to highly secure military installations previously dedicated to biological and chemical warfare, the inability of the scientists involved to share ideas and research results became an institutionalized impediment to progress. Without the clear goal and sharply focussed leadership of the wartime push to build the first atomic bomb, the decision making process was over time increasingly driven by personalities, politics, and publicity, resulting in considerable misallocation of resources and, more damningly, lost time and lost lives (Feynman and Sagan 1980, Tower Report 1987). Most notoriously, at least half a dozen secret programs directed at finding a chemical or biological control agent were active during the 1970s and early 1980s. Several such agents were identified and covertly sprayed over populated areas up and down the East Coast during the outbreak of 1979; none proved more effective than a solution prepared by MIT students containing spores collected from a previously unknown slime mold found growing on zombies that had been put down in the Boston area. Spraying in 1984-85 was even more aggressive, but the dead rapidly acquired immunity and proved in some cases able to reactivate ghouls felled early on, when the agents were still effective.
Years later, the seeming ease with which the putative plague organism overcame both chemical and biological controls was attributed to adaptations resulting from the widespread use of antibiotics and sulfonamides beginning in the 1930s. Drug-resistant bacteria can appear within days when subtherapeutic dosages of antibiotics are applied to promote animal growth in agricultural settings (Levy, Fitzgerald, and Macomb 1976), are typically seen in clinical settings within a year, and historically have rendered new sulfa drugs and antibiotics essentially ineffective 5 to 10 years after being brought into use. The rapid and repeated adoption of new drugs to counter resistance was suggested to have driven the evolution of “hypervigilant” bacteria genetically primed to adapt to new antibiotics and counter microbial competitors. Because the environment in which bacteria most often encountered new antibiotics was the human body, they may have made another, even more dangerous adaptation in response and counterattacked what they perceived as very large and successful biofilms that had suddenly become wildly toxic (Stewart and Costerton 2001).
The earliest and best known scientific blind alley was the widespread belief, still held by some to this day, that the initial outbreak in 1968 was triggered by the debris from a NASA Explorer space probe returning from Venus orbit that had been aborted shortly before reaching Earth due to radioactive contamination. This hypothesis found fertile soil in a public primed by Cold War anxieties over nuclear fallout and radiation, and the counterculture broadly accepted it, as well, thanks to a widely rebroadcast television interview recorded outside the White House in which a three-star Army general attempted to rein in two civilian scientific advisors who were affirming with seeming certainty that radiation from the Venus probe was the reason for the crisis. The general’s awkward efforts to silence the scientists fueled any number of conspiracy theories, one of which “nonfiction” bestseller a decade later, and not until 20 years after the initial outbreak was the bureaucratic infighting behind the famous footage revealed by an historian’s examination of the crisis and its aftermath (Tuchman 1988). The two scientists were consultants for the FBI, not NASA, and the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs were skeptical of the radiation hypothesis because the seemingly instinctive assumption among military personnel was that the Soviets must have deployed a chemical or biological weapon to sow chaos, disrupt the government, and distract the armed forces in preparation for a nuclear first strike. Indeed, the Pentagon did not step back from the belief that the Soviet Union had gotten away with a sneak attack that killed 2.3 million American and Canadian citizens until Army epidemiologists confirmed a landmark 1977 study concluding that Patient Zero lived in central Pennsylvania in 1963 or ’64, most likely in Huntingdon County about 125 miles east of Pittsburgh, and that the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains channeled ghouls wandering in search of food, allowing them to spread up and down the eastern third of the country more or less undetected (Fraser et al. 1977).
Outbreaks are now thought to be triggered by a complex, variably weighted mechanism involving environmental conditions and parallel quorum sensing systems that monitor local population densities of ghouls, potential food resources such as animals, insects, and humans, and are sensitive at concentrations below one part per trillion to certain signature thiols (notoriously odoriferous sulfur compounds associated with, for example, garlic and skunks) released by the newly risen and ghouls that have recently fed on human flesh (Miller et al. 2002). Rising thiol concentrations may be the quorum signal responsible for the widespread spontaneous reanimation of the recently deceased and behavioral changes in ghouls that are characteristic of an outbreak: increased aggression, herd formation, a strong preference for the flesh of human beings over other potential food sources, and as a result, switching from generally avoiding people to actively seeking us out (Wilson 1990). But in 1968, scientists trying to explain the living dead and account for the sudden and widespread nature of the outbreak had no knowledge of this.
The FBI put its weight behind the Venus probe hypothesis in hopes of covering up an institutional failure to recognize low level undead activity in the months leading up to the October outbreak. Hoover was obsessed with the possibility that the black nationalist movement could unite behind a strong leader, leading to “a real ‘Mau Mau’ in America, the beginning of a true black revolution”, and the Bureau’s internal memos and official reports duly blamed the horrific, cannibalistic murders on militant African-Americans or, when survivors reported being attacked by people they knew, on unsuspecting citizens being slipped LSD mickies by black nationalists, antiwar activists, leftist radicals, or another of COINTELPRO’s usual suspects. To the FBI’s enormous relief, NASA adopted the radiation hypothesis and quickly became its most vocal advocate following the cancellation of the Apollo program in 1969 and the collapse in public support for space exploration.
Unusually, NASA’s most visible spokesman held no official position in the agency. A human physiology researcher, Dr. Franklin Grimes, whose lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was under contract to NASA to study hypoxia and the effects of long term exposure to low atmospheric pressure, emerged as the first scientist to appear on television and confirm that the dead, even a corpse with all four limbs removed that came out of cold storage at the medical school, were returning to life. Grimes established that the undead did not metabolize oxygen, though they would consume it when it was available, a fact which he ascribed to bacterial respiration as dead tissue decayed; he described their visible cell structure, including the ruptured nuclear membrane, shattered chromosomes, missing mitochondria, and “cryptobacterial inclusions” characteristic of undead cellular morphology; and he was the first to hypothesize that their physical weakness and slow, shambling gait was a consequence of their anaerobic metabolism limiting the regeneration of adenosine monophosphate and diphosphate into ATP rather than some inherent infirmity in their muscles and joints (Grimes 1968). However, Grimes failed to recognize that the nuclei of anaerobic human cells were not simply ruptured but reorganized (Woese 1969), and he played no part in the initial biochemical analyses of the 1970s that showed reanimated cells lack a functioning Krebs cycle and synthesize ATP anaerobically (Crabtree and Newsholme 1970, 1972a, 1972b, Beis and Newsholme 1975) and that the cells no longer have mitochondria but rather hydrogenosomes appropriate to their anaerobic metabolism — Grimes’ cryptobacterial bodies (Lindmark and Müller 1973).
Though never an official spokesman for any organization larger than his own lab, Grimes continued to grant interviews and soon began to show up not only on the news, but on talk shows — during the 1970s, the only accredited scientist to appear with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show more often than Grimes was Dr. Joyce Brothers. Grimes’ connection to NASA, which he seemingly never failed to mention, helped keep that organization at the forefront of research into the undead for a decade. With the agency’s hopes for the space program now pinned on a series of Venus probes followed up by a manned orbiter to investigate the origins of the radiation, its effects, and possible countermeasures, NASA leadership understood that the U.S. space program was on the brink of being mothballed or, perhaps worse, put back under military control. Upon taking office in 1981, President Nixon did just that.
Part 2 • 1979-1989: The New Normal
Part 3 • 1990-2003: The False Spring
Part 5 • References