The Science Of Bioshock

Bioshock is set in a city called Rapture, founded by a hardcore libertarian called Andrew Ryan. The tagline is “no gods or kings, only man”, and literally every place in the game is named after gods.

The (scientific) premise of gameplay is that a mechanism of altering your own genetic code has been altered. Individuals can drink glowing flasks of “plasmids” to get what are essentially superpowers. To drink plasmids successfully, you need to have a stash of ADAM, and to use plasmids you need to have something called EVE.

Some people are addicted to ADAM and have imbibed in a great number of plasmids. These people are called “Splicers”, and present with soft tissue breakdown and mental instability (It seems that this mechanism of self-improvement wouldn’t have passed the FDA, but these are the risks you take when you live in a libertarian paradise under the sea). Soft tissue breakdown is likely to be due to cells being destroyed even in the presence of ADAM, and there are a range of papers that suggest a link between DNA damage and mental illness [1].

ADAM

The next question would be the nature of ADAM; it’s also mentioned that ADAM is originally obtained from a rare sea slug, and in-game is suggested to be unstable and slightly parasitic stem cells. This doesn’t really make sense, because while ADAM is now harvested from people, initially obtaining stem cells that function with our own biology seems as likely as making stem cells from stressing differentiated cells [2].

ADAM can be genetically manipulated to produce cells and functions that would not normally be present in the human body. It acts like a seemingly benign form of cancer, destroying native cells and replacing them with the unstable stem versions.

Well okay, but that’s not really that viable. It’s clear that ADAM increases tolerance to DNA damage, and it seems unlikely that ADAM would be stem cells due to the requirement to continuously get more of it. It doesn’t have to necessarily alter anything to make the plasmids viable, which I will get onto later, although fairly obviously setting things on fire across the room requires a bit of reality suspension, with or without deux ex ADAM.

A mechanism that makes more sense would be something that turns of the cellular senescence and apoptosis mechanisms. Usually, when your cell suffers too much DNA damage, your cell dies. This is basically why we’re not walking tumour-piles (as DNA damage can cause mutations that result in cancer, and killing cells with DNA damage prevent this) – but as you can probably guess from the fact that people do get cancer, it is not completely foolproof.

Cancer cells have similarly resistance to high amounts of mutation that Splicers appear to. It’s likely that ADAM inhibits cell cycle checkpoints and/or DNA repair systems as either a biological or chemical factor, which also explains the addiction to ADAM that Splicers develop. A protein could supply a temporary inhibition of cell cycle checkpoints (that tell your cell whether it should die), and fit with the model: assisting in genetic modification, addiction, and creation from semi-parasitic sea-slugs.

Plasmids

Plasmids in the biological sense are circular pieces of double-stranded DNA. In biotechnology they can be used to artificially insert genes into bacteria, plants, and mammals.

It makes sense that the plasmids described in Bioshock are actually plasmids. This makes sense both on a “how the plasmid even works” level and on a “how the plasmids were developed” level; plasmids could be refined and developed in bacterial culture before being moved into mammalian cells and finalized for consumption.

Plasmids are best imagined as a one-gene situation because to be honest, trying to think about the interactions of multiple genes to allow you to set up traps full of cyclones by flapping your hands at them reminds me how slightly silly writing this piece is. That one gene is likely to sit within a transposon that can then be inserted into the genome, explaining how the plasmid can be retained stably, ready to be used, in the absence of EVE.

That method of insertion also explains the DNA damage associated with high plasmid use and requirement for greater amounts of ADAM in order to maintain those plasmids. Not all of your cells would have all of the plasmids you’ve absorbed as well; you don’t have to have fixation of plasmid genes throughout the body in order for them to function. However, some ADAM will still be required to allow cells to withstand the insertion of a number of plasmids without activating cellular checkpoints that start a self-destruct mechanism.

EVE

EVE is this simplest part of this equation, but still deserves a section.

EVE allows plasmids to function and is used up when they do function, which means it is likely that it is a synthesized substrate. This substrate can be transformed into whatever the plasmid does, whether this is fire, frost, or messing with security cameras. (The more superpowery bits of Bioshock I am just dealing with the word “proteins” and a lot of hand-waving.) This is also in line with the game mechanic that uses up EVE as you use plasmids, as a substrate is used when you make proteins (think about it like baking a cake – once the cake is made you are down an egg, 500gm flour, 250 gm suga, etc. After making hand-wavey proteins, you’re down EVE).

The glowing blue of EVE is fairly easily understandable in that a synthesized protein can be attached to a fluorescent protein to keep track of it, something that is done regularly to watch where proteins go in animals or cells.

So, in summary, Bioshock is a very cool game that makes me a happy, happy nerd. The discussions in game surrounding the practicalities and ethics of the plasmid-ADAM-EVE system are incredibly realistic and enjoyable, and the ability to sit down and nut out a near-viable system with current biology is a great thing to be able to do with any computer game. There’s also some great discussion of genetic determinism, and I thoroughly recommend it as a game.

1. Andreazza, Ana Cristina, Benicio Noronha Frey, Bernardo Erdtmann, Mirian Salvador, Fernanda Rombaldi, Aida Santin, Carlos Alberto Gonçalves, and Flavio Kapczinski. “DNA damage in bipolar disorder.” Psychiatry research 153, no. 1 (2007): 27-32.

2. Cyranosky, D “Acid bath stem-cell study under investigation” Nature News 17 Feb 2014 doi:10.1038/nature.2014.14738

 

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