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Fun with fake science, Star Trek Mirror Universe edition
May 6, 2011 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I don't know enough about genetics generally, and RNA specifically, to work through this Star Trek RPG story hook. Please hope me.

Okay, so you r'member that Next Gen episode where Worf was in the wrong universe? And how Data figured it out based on a quantum resonance thingy in his RNA being all out of whack?

Well, in the campaign I'm running, it's established that Starfleet's Department of Temporal Investigations has expanded Data's findings and learned how to identify when somebody's from another universe, using only a sufficiently-detailed medical scan. This has obvious security implications when one considers the threat posed by mirror universe incursions—incursions which, as an opportunistic GM, I do not skimp on.

But I don't really understand how/if RNA is passed on from parents to children.

So my question is this. Suppose somebody from the mirror universe and somebody from the "prime" universe...procreated. (Really, I'm surprised they never had this happen in DS9, what with the mirror universe being all sexy times all the time.) What would an RNA quantum resonance scan of their offspring reveal? Would it say "this kid is from our universe," or "this kid is from the mirror universe," or "one of this kid's parents was not from our universe," or would it maybe indicate WHICH parent was from WHICH universe, or what?

(Obviously we are doing some "made-up" science here, but it has to at least be plausible. I'm excellent at Trek engineering technobabble, but not so much at the medical science technobabble.)

Wikipedia's "epigenetics" page says that "A large amount of RNA and protein is contributed to the zygote by the mother during oogenesis or via nurse cells, resulting in maternal effect phenotypes. A smaller quantity of sperm RNA is transmitted from the father, but there is recent evidence that this epigenetic information can lead to visible changes in several generations of offspring." That makes me suspect that if mom's from the "other" universe, it will show up in the scan of the kid more readily. But is it reasonable to assume that Trek tech (of the late 24th century) would detect dad's contribution, if HE were the one from the "other" universe?

For that matter, can we even count of fertilization succeeding, since the RNA is "in flux," whatever that means? Do I, in other words, have enough pseudoscientific basis to decree that such a pairing is always/often/sometimes going to be infertile?

And, oh jeez, what if the individuals in question are Andorians or some other species that requires multiple sexes to procreate?! Oh beans, you are so numerous I require a plate.
posted by AugieAugustus to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ummmm.... RNA comes from DNA.... unless youre talking about something different?
But yeah, the only RNA I know is basically a mobile complementary copy of bits of DNA that then get "read" to make proteins. Its a whole lot more complicated than that, but basically it comes from your own DNA, and is produced when you want a protein made. If you PM me I'm sure I can give you a long lecture if you want.

I can't answer the rest for you other than star trek makes up a whole lot of pseudoscience (but at least its not as bad as fringe, which makes the scientist in me cry)
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:21 PM on May 6, 2011


Oh, re-reading your question - epigenetics works more by modifying how accessible DNA is, rather than actually changing it. So, different proteins may be produced leading to different visible effects, but the itself DNA is not altered. Therefore RNA produced by the individual would be the same, but perhaps produced in different quantities depending their inherited characteristics.

Honestly? Decide whatever you want, I think, although I'm sure some more hardcore trekkies will come in and disagree with me
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:26 PM on May 6, 2011


A particular universe has different quantum resonance which is measurable in RNA (but not DNA, for purposes of the story).

Presumably this arises because of (tiny) differences in fundamental constants at the beginning of that universe.

As there are an infinity of other universes, it's possible to encounter one with the same fundamental physical constants as those in universe prime, in which case Data's test would not identify someone from the alternate universe.
posted by orthogonality at 2:31 PM on May 6, 2011


The MA page you linked has another link to ""Quantum flux", which seems to imply that what Data found was Worf's cells being "quantumly destabilized", allowing him to travel between realities. Put another way, he didn't actually pick up some signature of another universe, he picked up that Worf was not grounded in one universe. In your scenario, so long as the kid never travelled from his/her "home" reality, they wouldn't be detected.
posted by kagredon at 2:35 PM on May 6, 2011


Echoing nocturnal, RNA is the "messenger" form of your DNA. Think of it like this: your DNA is a complete record of all of your genes, both coding (makes a protein) and non-coding (some control the expression of the coding genes, some are just junk). When a cell needs to synthesize a protein, it transcribes a gene from its master record (DNA) to a messenger (RNA) that's sent to the protein factory (ribosome).

Putting on my DM hat for a second, you could swing this two ways.

If, for story purposes, you don't want mirror universe hybrids, you could say that mirror-RNA isn't properly read by prime-ribosomes, so fertilization is impossible.

But that would be boring!

Better to say that mirror-hybrids, having gotten only half of their genetic material from the mirror universe, generate only slightly abnormal RNA, so you need to scan twice as long / twice as deeply to detect a mirror-hybrid as opposed to a full-mirror-person.
posted by Oktober at 2:35 PM on May 6, 2011


From what I read about quantum resonance, I don't think that people from different realities COULD produce a viable child (unless, of course, it happened at some point on the show).
A quantum signature is a unique subatomic resonance which is constant across all matter in the universe. This signature cannot be changed by any known process, and can be considered to be the basic foundation of existence.
Quantum signatures are more fundamental than DNA. More fundamental than carbon. It would be analagous to a carbon-based life-form naturally breeding with a silicon-based life form.

Of course, you're the DM. If you want them to be able to breed, then you can justify whatever outcome you prefer.
posted by muddgirl at 2:42 PM on May 6, 2011


It all depends on how you want to work this.

Tricorders might normally read RNA because RNA, as the expression of DNA, is more relevant in medical situations than straight-up DNA. If you made the tricorder read DNA (maybe that's an option in a tastefully-designed submenu somewhere), you would pick up the same thing. To read all of the atoms in an individual, a transporter might be more appropriate. So that is why the tricorder is picking up something in RNA — that is where it looks — rather than DNA.

Then you ask, "So, umm, what is it that is resonating?" And the answer would be atoms. Particles have various quantum numbers assigned to them and perhaps there are quantum numbers accessed in the Physics of the Future that are typically unique (like random numbers assigned from very large pools of potential numbers) to a universe. One universe, one specific quantum number, inherent in all particles (or maybe just the heavy ones, the baryons, like protons and neutrons).

If that were the case, after an extended period of time, most of the matter in a living organism would be cycled out through ingestion and excretion, and so the atoms composing the RNA would slowly be changed out for atoms with the "local" number. Meanwhile, Worf's recycled urine is now in the coffee at Ten Forward and, in small quantities, has the remote quantum resonance signature.

If you stick with the DNA model of reproduction (which Trek normally does), a male from a remote universe impregnating a female from the local universe would get you offspring with a vanishingly small (and dropping all the time) proportion of remote atoms, and so a declining proportion of remote quantum resonance signature. A female from a remote universe decides to mate with a male from the local universe and the resulting offspring would have a higher proportion of the remote atoms than in the previous scenario. However, that number would also decline over time.

You could handwave your way through this by having to recalibrate things to look for this signature, specifically, and perhaps require the use of more specialized equipment. Additionally, if your species has any permanent features, like horns, the atoms laid down in those horns would recycle very slowly as compared to, say, skin, and so would be detectable for a longer period of time with lower-end equipment.
posted by adipocere at 2:46 PM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


What adipocere said - what's resonating would be the matter from that other universe, so what you'd pick up is where a person lives, not genetic heritage.
posted by Lady Li at 8:25 PM on May 6, 2011


The type of RNA that matters is messenger RNA - basically your body runs off some of these using your DNA as a master template and then uses the RNA copies as the instruction sheet to make proteins. Then it chops them up and recycles them.

Reading the synopsis, though, the RNA thing is just what they happened to be looking at when they found QUANTUM WEIRDNESS! It could just as easily been when Worf put his boots in the footwear discombobulatoer because they were scuffed and needed the polish atomized and reassembled.

That being said, there is nothing forcing you to do exactly what they did in the show. If you want the MacGuffin that reveals, "that boy ain't quite right" there are a lot of ways you could approach the issue. In our universe, we have different isotypes of certain proteins. Blood type and Rh factor are well known examples of this but there are all kinds of variants of different proteins.

So now Federation medical dude, first class is doing a detailed workup on our not quite right person. There is nothing about him that seems overtly different - the forces of evolution and the Paramount makeup budget kind of drove him (or at least his outsider parent) towards a more or less human form, but when you look really close, half his proteins (the ones coded for in genes that came from the local parent) code for normal protein isotypes while the other half are weird. They work more or less the same, but when you look at the sequences side by side, nothing is quite right. If you want to have fun with this, the system could identify the protein as coming from odd sources - 99.2% with some extinct species or another.

Depending on how long you want to run with this, you could also use this to misdirect them, make them think it was some sort of very unethical genetic engineering experiment, except that none of the variants are that much better (or worse) at doing what they do, just not quite right.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:29 PM on May 6, 2011


Great responses, everybody.

As there are an infinity of other universes, it's possible to encounter one with the same fundamental physical constants as those in universe prime, in which case Data's test would not identify someone from the alternate universe.

Except that MA (and presumably the episode—I should watch it again to be certain) says that the signature is unique, and in the episode Data does detect Worf is off. But your point is valid in that, were Data to detect that Worf's quantum signature was the same as everybody else's, that would not prove he WASN'T from some other universe. I will have to remember that distinction.

If that were the case, after an extended period of time, most of the matter in a living organism would be cycled out through ingestion and excretion, and so the atoms composing the RNA would slowly be changed out for atoms with the "local" number. Meanwhile, Worf's recycled urine is now in the coffee at Ten Forward and, in small quantities, has the remote quantum resonance signature.

I hadn't thought of that. Makes perfect sense though. And that would mean our Universe-Hybrid Kid would soon be indistinguishable from the others in whatever universe he grows up in (assuming he doesn't spend long periods in other universes).

How much time are we talking about here for cycling that stuff out, though? Months, years, tens of years? How long, in other words, does it take for our atoms to fully "recycle"?

Additionally, if your species has any permanent features, like horns, the atoms laid down in those horns would recycle very slowly as compared to, say, skin, and so would be detectable for a longer period of time with lower-end equipment.

Wouldn't teeth count as "permanent features"?

Depending on how long you want to run with this, you could also use this to misdirect them, make them think it was some sort of very unethical genetic engineering experiment, except that none of the variants are that much better (or worse) at doing what they do, just not quite right.

Muwahahahaaa. Brilliant.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:19 AM on May 7, 2011


This is a lot more of my own thoughts than ST canon, but I'll give it a shot.

So, about that "Parallels" episode. The big question is, was Worf's body actually transported whole-hog, or did his consciousness shift into the existing body? It seems like it couldn't purely be the latter, but I don't think it can purely be the former, either. Mainly because of one thing: what happened to the Worf that was supposed to be there in those alternate universes? It wasn't like a teleporter ride across quantum realities, where matter is pretty much moved from A to B and consciousness seems to follow. It was more like a consciousness hop.

(Which brings up the question of what transporters do, and I'm just going to say that the ST universe presupposes something like a "soul", the kernel of identity, down in subspace or some shit. The soul meshes with/attaches to/routes through the more gross matter of pretty much the brain. The Federation are pretty fly when it comes to breaking down, transporting, and reconstituting this gross matter but don't really know much about souls. But they're lucky; transporters happen to work at all because the soul "sticks" to the gross matter and re-meshes where it is formed, though we presume early experiments produced a lot of vegetables. The soul however can't be copied by transporters or anything else the Federation knows how to do. Maybe this is why the Federation is so fruity and New Agey; they have scientific proof of the existence of souls but have no real scientific grasp on them. That's sort of the post-WW2 U.S. Star Trek thing in general: "We've got all this cool shit, but what is [wo]Man?" (There's also a big question of where and what is memory, and I think ST is going to say it's pretty much in the soul, though also maybe with echoes in the gross matter thanks to routing, caching, whatever.))

So to answer my question about Worf, I think Worf's soul began to hop across parallel dimensions, attaching to different parallel Worf-bodies because of their naturally high affinity—though of course this process is also determined by the nature of Worf's soul, i.e. we Learned Something about Worf in this episode.

Normally there are strong subspace things that keep this soul bleed-through from happening. If these barriers weren't there it would happen all the time because there are a lot of parallel universes that are extremely close; but in this case I guess someone jimmied with subspace via the big Argus Telescope and Worf got caught in some anomaly that made his soul cascade through realities, where presumably each soul he displaced got pushed over to some other place. Where there's "subspace", there's danger to the soul as well.

* Okay, so what up with the RNA then?

I'm going to say there that this is part of the soul/body interaction that the Federation doesn't really understand. And as such, I don't have to explain it too well. I'm saying it's NOT because of foreign gross matter that tagged along with Worf, but it's probably due to there being some kind of quantum mismatch, almost too small to detect, because Worf's soul didn't hop far, but his soul was expecting things to be a little different. It's like his soul came through pronouncing his "R"s slightly differently, and it really only showed up when it has to say the word "rearrange" and only Data noticed because Data's like that. That is, the different quantum signature of the soul barely showed up in the otherwise fully quantum synced gross matter.

* So what does that mean for you?

So I'm thinking that this RNA stuff doesn't really apply as you are talking about mirror universe stuff it sounds like, where bodies make the hop across realities, facial hair and all, and they probably are easily detected as having a different quantum signature (and in fact long-term this could cause sickness and death.) Or, if you don't want it that way, I can imagine Data saying something like, "I thought it was simply that my instruments were out of phase, but in fact their quantum signatures are perfectly reversed ... Yes Captain, in a sense they are our perfect opposites, the sines to our cosines." Which seems sort of hair-pullingly Star Trekkily vague. Maybe "coreality" would be a better term than mirror universe which is why there's really "a" mirror universe and not zillions of them.

* WHat about babby?

How does the babby soul form in the normal case? Subspace storks... Since this is Star Trek, your narrative needs should come first, and if you need it to be different later, it was because the positronic matrix subspace resonance phase was misaligned in that one case. I.e. throw in an anomaly to cover your ass.
posted by fleacircus at 6:28 AM on May 7, 2011


I don't get quantum resonance-- sounds kinda like mumbo-jumbo. So I can't say a lot about your precise question, but I can add a little bit to what others have said about things like RNA in the hope that it helps you.

First of all: RNA is not a single molecule. It is a class of molecules, characterized by the kinds of atoms that it contains and the structure of those atoms.

RNA is usually categorized based on the role it plays in cells. Messenger RNA has been mentioned, but it's not the only kind of RNA. There's also transfer RNA, and ribosomal RNA. I think that ribosomal RNA is actually the inspiration for star trek using RNA for this kind of stuff, because ribosomal RNA was pretty useful for distinguishing between broad categories of organisms in establishing some of our first big evolutionary trees.

RNA doesn't live forever, although the atoms it is made up of do (pretty much). Eventually, a molecule of RNA will get broken up into its constituent bits, and then those bits will probably be put together into more RNA or get excreted.

RNA is an essential step in doing everything that cells do. So yeah, any kind of cell you pick, including eggs and sperm, are gonna have some RNA. That RNA is going to be in the fused sperm/egg, but it's going to rapidly dilute down to nothing as your first cell divides. (Sorry for not remembering all the technical names during fetilization/development-- didn't ever strike me as very interesting to learn the names). And of course that RNA isn't immortal, so it's not like any of us adults are carrying around any of our parents' RNA.

The major source of RNA is going to be created by the action of enzymes, embryonic DNA, and raw materials. Those enzymes are first going to be supplied by sperm and egg (mostly egg, or maybe totally egg, dunno). Enzymes don't last forever either, btw. The raw materials are going to be old, broken down RNA, maternal material (from broken down maternal RNA etc that feeds the embryo), or from food that the mom eats.

If quantum resonance is something that atoms (or constituents of atoms) possess, then RNA wouldn't be necessary at all, although maybe it might be handy for some reason. Teeth are probably the most permanent things in our body, but nothing in us is really permanent. (Aliens might be different.) But the long-lived atoms in our bodies are extra-cellular. So there's no RNA in the permanent-ish parts of our teeth. Neurons are examples of cells that are pretty much life-long, but then, the RNA in them is still just temporary; even the DNA in them gets damaged and repaired, although more slowly than RNA degrades.

Little more than a guess, but I'd estimate we probably eat enough to replace all of our protein about yearly (if we actually ate like the authorities told us to :) ) RNA constituents are different than protein, but should be roughly proportional. That suggests that the proportion of atoms in our RNA that originate from some specific time in the past would be 1/(2^x) where x is the length in years between the two points in time. Assuming limited interaction between realities, you could do some statistical tricks to distinguish between people who'd been in this one and people who'd been in the other one, but they'd be in probabilities. Like, Worf A (has just been drinking the odd recycled urine from alternate reality visitors) is 5% likely to be from another reality, while Worf B (moved over a year ago) is 95% likely to be from another reality. A tiny sample would provide enough atoms for this determination. This might be interesting, because the probabilities are actually important-- you're going to end up with misidentification if you use this to identify people, depending on how many people you test, and how strict your standards of proof are.

When mom and dad make an embryo, its atoms (in RNA or whatever) are going to mostly come from mom and the universe where mom eats. Dad is going to contribute very few atoms, because sperm are much smaller than eggs, and because Dad only gets to contribute once, whereas mom contributes once, then for a further nine months, then breast feeds maybe. But if you want to test, you're going to see more abnormal atoms in mixed-parentage than otherwise, regardless of which is which; Dad still contributes some atoms, after all.

This is all assuming human parentage (which I guess makes Worf a bad example, huh?) Different types of sperm and eggs would lead to differences. It's not impossible to imagine a large sperm from a male fusing to an egg that contains little more than genetic material (although there are reasons it doesn't go that way in real life). Different patterns of development, eating, and excretion would affect atoms' longevity in the body.
posted by nathan v at 1:09 AM on May 13, 2011


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