Deadly Viruses and Bacteria: What The Andromeda Strain Taught Us

Ken Martin
6 min readApr 8, 2020

Useful Information Among the Countdowns, Self-Destruct Mechanisms, Nuclear Detonations and Invisible Enemies

The Andromeda Galaxy. Image by Guillermo Ferla, Unsplash

The 1971 movie The Andromeda Strain was based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. Well known for Jurassic Park and other science-based novels, Crichton frequently salted his thrillers with bio and medical information gleaned from his scientific training, and the degree he received from Harvard Medical School.

In The Andromeda Strain, a team of doctors and scientists deal with a lethal agent that wiped out the inhabitants of the small town of Piedmont, AZ. The highly-infectious agent was collected by a high atmospheric probe which made landfall near the town.

The team gathers in a state-of-the-art underground biocontainment lab located in a remote area near Flatrock, NV. The operation is called Wildfire, and the first task of the Wildfire team is to identify the nature of this highly-virulent agent.

The lab work leads to the identification of an extraterrestrial microbe from a meteorite that had made contact with the atmospheric probe. The team focuses on visually identifying the microbe, understanding its transmission, and determining how best to neutralize the threat.

Anatomy of a Microbe

A microbe is an microorganism, that is, an organism only visible through a microscope. Microbes include bacteria and viruses.

Bacteria are unicellular living organisms.

A virus exhibits traits both living (replication, genes) and non-living (no cellular structure, no metabolism). Typically, a virus is little more than a set of genetic instructions protected by a protein shell. The genetic instructions may be RNA or DNA.

Microbe Reproduction

Bacteria reproduce through cell division.

Viruses do not have cells, and are unable to replicate outside the living cell of a host. Upon ingestion or contact with a host organism (such as a human), the protein shell dissolves and the RNA (or DNA) is released into the host cell. The viral RNA then inserts itself into the host cell’s DNA, commanding the host cell to carry out the viral genetic instructions. The virus…