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Deep-Sea Ecologist Rewatches seaQuest DSV: Episode 8, “Give Me Liberte”

seaquest title screen

“That astronaut’s cell kicked some major chromosomal butt,” is an actual line voiced by a character ostensibly supposed to be a scientist.

My world is the deep sea, but my methods are the tools of conservation genetics, which means that seaQuest DSV episode 8, “Give Me Liberte”—in which a virus from space found at the bottom of the sea infects the seaQuest crew and is cured via the corpse of a conveniently resistant astronaut—was doubly painful. If there’s any science more poorly presented through film and television than genetics, I haven’t found it.

The seaQuest team investigates an underwater research lab where the entire crew has mysteriously died. The intrepid Questors investigate, but, upon return, discover that they’ve contracted a nasty virus from a nearby crashed space station which is attacking their … chromosomes? I mean, I guess that’s technically correct in the most general possible way, but I can’t think of any time in my career that I’ve heard anyone describe a virus’s behavior that way.

At one point, they namedrop the sequence GTAG, as if it’s supposed to mean something to the audience, rather than just sounding science-y. The DNA sequence “GTAG” repeated over and over actually does form a really cool genetic element called a Repetitive Extragenic Palindrome, which may play a role in stabilizing messenger RNA, facilitating transcription termination, and providing structure to the molecule in some bacterial lineages. I guess a functional GTAG element could show up in a retrovirus, maybe.

Back aboard the seaQuest, the expedition team is forced into quarantine, which is met with a level of resistance that seems fairly extreme for a highly trained submersible crew. It’s not like technical divers aren’t trained to go into isolation in decompression chambers. Fortunately, Krieg, the procurement officer who always seems to be the source of the sketchiest things on the sub, arrives with what is clearly a virtual reality porn rig. So that’s a thing that exists aboard seaQuest.

After contacting one of the original researchers who worked on the space station, Captain Bridger learns that the cure lies inside the body of one of the dead astronauts, who was inexplicably resistant to the virus. Bridger and the French scientist pay a visit to the crashed space station. Because this is seaQuest, and everything is waterproof, the station interior is miraculously preserved. They recover the body, synthesize a cure, and everyone is free to leave their quarantine and get back to work.

Tenuous grasp of genetics aside, this was a nice, tight episode with some good character development, particularly on the part of the French researcher, and some decent drama. I like how the first season of seaQuest primarily uses discovery and exploration to build tension, rather than violence.

The ocean, by the way, is loaded with viruses, including some giant viruses with casings up to half a micrometer across. Most pass harmlessly through the human body. If you want to talk about the worst disease you could get from the ocean, you should look towards the lowly bacteria, and one particularly nasty number, Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating, often fatal relative of cholera, most commonly ingested via eating raw oyster. V. vulnificus predominantly affects men (about 85% of patients are male over 40). At best, it will give you the worst food poisoning of your life, with symptoms persisting for up to a month. At worst, failure to treat within 72 hours is almost certainly fatal (which, I guess, also counts as the worst food poisoning of your life). Vibrio isn’t just in oysters, and free-floating bacteria in the water can infect open wounds, resulting in necrosis with a 20% mortality rate.

Fortunately, Vibrio vulnificus has a fairly tight temperature range. A few degrees can be the difference between outbreak and absence. Unfortunately, the oceans are getting warmer and Vibrio is showing up in new areas. The first cases from the Baltic Sea were reported a few years ago.

So the vast majority of food poisoning-related fatalities are from Vibrio infections and that’s pretty scary, but early treatment is very effective. If you get sick after eating raw oysters, don’t wait to see if you get better, go see a doctor immediately. If you cut yourself on an oyster reef, go to the emergency room, even if it doesn’t look particularly bad. If your flesh is literally rotting off your body after swimming in the ocean, don’t tough it out.

And maybe do what I do and only eat roasted oysters. Cooking kills Vibrio.

The episode ends with the French doctor asking Captain Bridger if the seaQuest submarine is everything he dreamed it would be. I feel like this isn’t the first time Roy Schneider missed the opportunity to say “we need a bigger boat.”

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