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How to Engineer a Zombie Virus

George Dvorsky
By George Dvorsky
Sentient Developments

Posted: Dec 18, 2010

Much to my surprise, I’ve become a bit of a zombie junkie.

I’m a big fan of the Walking Dead television show and zombie films in general (I could watch Shaun of the Dead endlessly). I’ve been intrigued and spooked by the genre’s post-apocalypic visions of a humanity overrun by a mysterious virus that brings the dead back to life—only to stalk the living.

While it doesn’t necessarily speak to the kind of speculative fiction that I normally enjoy, it does offer some food for thought as far a the science is concerned. And it got me thinking: Could such a thing ever happen? Moreover, given the potential power of future technologies, could a ‘zombie virus’ be deliberately engineered? The more I thought about this, the more I became convinced that such a thing might actually be possible.

Solanum virus

According to zombie canon, it’s a virus called Solanum that is responsible for converting the living to the undead. According to the Zombie Survival Guide, the virus works by traveling through the bloodstream from the original point of entry to the brain where it uses the cells of the frontal lobe for replication, destroying them in the process. During this period, all bodily functions cease and the infected subject is eventually pronounced “dead.” The brain remains alive but dormant while the virus mutates its cells into a completely new organ.

Once the mutation is complete, this new organ reanimates the body—but typically to a form that bears little resemblance to the original corpse. Some bodily functions remain constant, others operate in a modified capacity, and the remainder shut down completely.

1The result of the transformation is a zombie, a member of the living dead.

But it doesn’t stop there. The reanimated corpse develops an insatiable appetite for human flesh, the brain in particular. It is through the relentless stalking and attacking of the living that zombies attempt to satiate their appetites, while spreading the virus to their surviving attack victims.

Solanum is 100% communicable and 100% fatal. While the virus is neither waterborne nor airborne, infection  can only occur through direct fluidic contact. A zombie bite is the most common vector for transferring the virus, but it’s not the only one. Humans can be infected by brushing their open wounds against those of a zombie or being splattered by its remains after an explosion.

As for the zombies, there is no cure. Nor can their relentless thirst for the living be quenched. They are single-purpose automatons, stalking the living until their bodies have completely rotted away, or their brains destroyed.

The zombies among us

This might all sound rather fantastical, the stuff of cheesy horror flicks, but the concept is not as outlandish as it might appear. Natural selection has, quite disturbingly, produced a number of viruses that, for all intents and purposes, turn their hosts into virtual zombies.

Take mind controlling parasites, for example. These are viruses and simple organisms that have evolved such that they can alter the behavior of their hosts. Essentially, they cognitively re-engineer their victims, turning them into their transmission vectors. It is not uncommon for organisms to leech off several different species in this way as part of their reproductive cycle.

For example, there is Plasmodium gallinaceum, more commonly known as malaria. It’s been known for some time that this protozoan uses mosquitoes as its vector. What has not been known until recently, however, is how malaria alters the blood sucking behavior of mosquitoes. Malaria has had a significant impact on the evolution of mosquitoes and their behavior, much like flowers, have contributed to the evolution of its pollinators, namely bees and other flying insects. Specifically, a mosquito will continue to search for victims until it reaches a threshold volume of blood. When it hits this threshold point, it stops host-seeking. It is thought that the stage-specific effect of the malaria parasite on host-seeking behavior is likely to be an active manipulation to increase its transmission success.

Then there’s Dicrocoelium dendriticum. It’s a virus that primarily infects sheep—but it has a rather convoluted way of going about its reproductive business. First, adult worms lay eggs in the bile ducts of the sheep and are excreted. These eggs are in turn ingested by various species of land snails and the eggs hatch in their digestive tracts. This hatching releases a compound that continues to change until it is released by the snail in the form of a slimeball. This slimeball is then eaten by ants. This eventually develops into metacercariae within the abdominal cavity of the ants. And here’s where it gets interesting (not that it hasn’t been a riveting tale to this point): the ant’s behavior is in turn altered such that it is compelled to climb to the very top of a blade of grass where it waits to get eaten by sheep. The sheep eats the grass with the ant on it and subsequently becomes infected. The cycle is complete.

2Hairworms, which live inside grasshoppers, eventually need to leave their hosts to continue their life cycle. Rather than leave peacefully, however, they release a cocktail of chemicals that makes the grasshoppers commit suicide by leaping into water. The hairworms then swim away from their drowning hosts. Nice, eh?

Think humans are immune to mind-controlling parasites? Think again. It is suspected that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is often contracted by humans from their cats, affects human psychology. Normally the parasite works to manipulate rodents, but some scientists speculate that human cognition can also be altered. It is thought that that those who are infected show a small tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Less controversial are studies that have shown links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.

And of course, there’s rabies—a disease with frightening parallels to Solanum. Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system, causing acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in warm-blooded animals. It is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected animal, but occasionally by other forms of contact. As the disease progresses, symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms. But it is during the phase of agitation and excitation that those infected with rabies will attack anything and anyone, spreading the disease even further.

Given that rabies kills around 55,000 people a year, mostly in Asia and Africa, it can be said that we are already in the midst of a zombie outbreak.

Creating a zombie virus

So, nature has come pretty darned close to creating a Solanum virus of its own. Which leads to the question: Could we actually take the extra step of creating something that very closely approximates a zombie disease?

3The answer is yes—and given recent advances in biotechnology and artificial life, such a disease could be right around the corner should someone want to create such a thing. Moreover, given future insights into the neurosciences and the inner workings of the brain, a potential zombie virus could be scripted in very specific and nefarious ways.

Thanks to natural selection we don’t even have to start from scratch. We already possess the foundation for creating a mind-controlling parasite: rabies. In Venteresque fashion, we could make a genetic tweak here, a genetic tweak there, and create a virus that could be much more devastating than what nature created. It would for all intents-and-purposes be Rabies 2.0.

It could be made more contagious and induce a quicker onset of symptoms. The virus could also be engineered such that it would result in more specific host-behavior; the virus could re-work the areas responsible for volition (i.e. free will and action taking) and decision making, while simultaneously re-wiring the reward and moral centers of the brain. The sight of another human, for example, could create a sense of extreme hunger, and consequently trigger an atavistic predatorial instinct. The feelings might even be accentuated by co-opting sexual desire.

Frighteningly, it could also be transformed into an air-borne virus, significantly increasingly the likelihood of person-to-person transmission.

Should we want to get more literal than just a rage inducing virus—something that more closely resembles Solanum—our malicious bio-engineer would require some nanotechnology. Specifically, nanobots, working in tandem with the brain bugs already described, could reanimate a corpse and work to maintain essential bodily functions even though the brain is essentially dead. It’s even possible that advances in regenerative medicine could allow for neurogenesis in which dead neurons are re-generated; stem cells never sounded so evil.

But would it be apocalyptic?

Okay, so it might be possible to create a zombie virus. But would such a thing have the same effect as it does in the movies? Would this be an apocalypse-inducing pandemic?

I believe the answer is no.

As rabies has shown, animal-to-animal transmission is quite containable. The spread of rabies, while persistent and pernicious, is easily identifiable and slow. Consequently, it has been all but eliminated in North America. And even if it somehow became airborne, it’s an open question as to how quickly it would spread. We might very well be able to contain it.

No virus is perfect. Even the Black Plague couldn’t wipe out the mass of humanity (it killed 30-60% of Europe’s population). And sometimes viruses are too vicious for their own good. Take Ebola, arguably the nastiest of the viruses, which tends to be too efficient at killing its host.

But I’m just speculating. I really don’t know. Given the unique nature of zombies, such an outbreak could be a potential game changer. Let’s hope we never have to find out.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
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Another possibility is a virus engineered to work in the same way as the voodoo priests are said to do it ie. a living person is poisoned subtly so that they don’t die but fall into a vegetative state such that when the priest or witch doctor revives they sustain brain damage and lose their free will. Then they are (or were) sent off to the plantations as slaves. A virus that could do something similar would be handy for many would-be dictators. I think it’s a stretch - I hope it is - but who knows, eh?

I once saw a similar article on While ‘living’ zombies seem feasable, the decomposing sort seen commonly in movies are pure fantasy.

Despite their portrayal in works of fiction, in reality a “reanimated” decomposing corpse would be very weak, or totally unable to move, depending on the stage of decomposition. At the very least, it’s muscle cells would have to remain alive and intact for it to achieve locomotion. How the zombie would continue to generate ATP, without the benefit (I assume) of a working circulatory or system is unimaginable. And all that is assuming that the engineer somehow enables a zombie to breath. Yes, zombies would have to breath, or they would be rendered inert by rigor mortis.

There is a litany of challenges for bioengineers who aim to keep living humans functioning. I pity the bioengineers that take on the task of permitting an organism made up largely of dead tissue to function at all, much less roam the earth terrorizing the living. They’d be better off searching for the Necronomicon. Or maybe build robot “zombies”.

As Paul said, zombies, in their original sense are much more feasible, and in my opinion, more interesting. When I read the title, I was hoping that this was the direction the article would take. Removing free will from a living person would be a much less daunting task than engineering decomposing revenants, and it also the holds potential to open an interesting ethical discussion. This article seems to serve solely as an outing of the author’s self-proclaimed zombie fixation, with some scientific facts added here and there.

Interesting article, I wonder how many other animal species are susceptible to viral and parasitic organisms?

I’m a George A Romero fan, especially of his satirical and cynical insights into the human condition and it’s versatility. But you’re right about the shortfalls concerning dead flesh and lack of circulatory system.

Best voodoo inspired movie I’ve seen is Wes Craven’s “The serpent and the rainbow” (1988) with Bill Pullman. Also Danny Boyle’s “28 days later” explores the idea of a rapid man made “rage” virus that reeks havoc and spreads like wildfire. may interest you.
She says zombie’s will happen.
She finds Bible codes and has a radio talk show.

Viruses do not evolve because they are not living organisms.They only contain nucleic acid surrounded by a capsid (protein coat), and need a host cell to replicate. instead of evolving by natural selection new viruses arise from mutations of pre-existing viruses. creating a “rage” virus really would not be that difficult, the technology is already here. You know what? i’m gonna make this my weekend project!

This is not far from the truth. In reality, Alzheimers is a disease that effectively creates a docile zombie. A mutation of it could produce a violent zombie. Mad cow and rabies in effect are the same things. Depending on the species and certain mutations and things could go violent in a hurry.

there is something called the sleeping virus… or something like that. it is VERY similar to zombification and could have the TRUE means of creating the zombie virus. if u where to splice rabies and the sleeping virus and tweak it ever so slightly it could have the means of creating the actual virus.
you see the sleeping virus makes it so you have very little brain function, makes u very sleepy, makes your skin rot and also is an air born virus
1 in 3 people in Africa and Asia are potential carriers and it is very contagious. just think of the possibilities.

Why would we even want to engineer a zombie virus?

I’m sorry, but a zombie virus (not a bacterium, prion or parasite, but an actual virus) would have to require some form of what I like to call “Medical Unobtainium”. This would be something that has yet to be discovered by modern science (if such a thing exists), but in the mean-time is just something that is very convenient for science-fiction writers.

A virus that turns people into zombies would have to be one that would target specific parts of the brain. However, you can’t really program a virus to do that. Rabies, for example, doesn’t affect just the human brain; it affects the entire nervous system. If it’s a neuron and it’s alive and kicking, you bet your ass that rabies will attack it. The underlying problem here is that there is absolutely no difference between a neuron in your cerebrum and a neuron in, say, your left toe. So, if that be the case, how in the hell are you going to tell your virus, “don’t go for the toe, go for the hypothalamus”? Is there something special that distinguishes one neuron from the other? The correct answer is a big, huge, George-Romero-smacking no.

However, if you are able to find a way to bypass this problem, then how are you going to get your virus to stop once enough damage has been dealt to your poor test subject’s gray matter? Viruses are not a collective or a hive mind. They don’t even have minds at all. All that a virus does is replicate, and this it does very well. It doesn’t and cannot understand what it’s doing or how it affects the host that it’s attacking. It doesn’t care (simply because it lacks the capacity to care). All it does is make copies of itself. So, how exactly are you going to be able to program it to stop when you’re perfectly satisfied? The only solution I know of would be to pump your test subject full of bleach. This may destroy any chances that your subject would have of becoming a mindless zombie, but, hey! Who cares? At least you found a way to stop the virus, you sly devil, you.

Besides, even if you could find a way to stop a virus from carrying out it’s one function, replication, without the use of an industrial bucket of bleach, then why focus on creating a zombie virus? Such a discovery would have the potential to stop any virus dead in it’s tracks, curing viral diseases and earning you a nice, fat paycheck and a Nobel Prize. Seems like a much more lucrative business opportunity to me than finding out a way to wipe out your customer base… But, what do I know?

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