A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Would Frankenstein's monster be possible today?

January 1, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I asked my college professor whether or not the concept of Frankenstein's monster was possible. He gave me some lame answer about enzymes. But doesn't the human body work on electricty? Why can't pieces of people be assembled and jolted back to life? Doesn't DNA last forever, so couldn't it be reused to make someone new? Please give me the straight dope. Was Dr. Frankenstein ahead of his time or did Mary Shelley just have a real good imagination?

Neither, really. Mary Shelley's science isn't much more than ill humours and leeches. There's no explanation of how the good doctor accomplishes his task. There's no lightning, there's no sewing, there's no grave-robbing. Shelley goes out of her way to avoid telling us how dead tissue can be reanimated. Dr. Frankenstein says he won't tell because he's afraid others will follow in his folly. Mary Shelley probably didn't tell 'cause she just couldn't come up with anything. There is an implication that pieces of bodies were utilized in some fashion (references to "dissecting rooms" and "slaughterhouses") but there's nothing explicit. As near as I can tell, the lightning thing is just a creation of Hollywood. As, I might add, is Igor, and what's a Frankenstein film without him?

Now to the meat of the question, as it were. Can modern science reanimate dead tissue?

Well, no, obviously. Otherwise we'd be doing it all the time.

But is it, conceptually, possible? Probably not. The body doesn't really work on electricity. It mostly works on chemical energy, generated by enzymes in the process of breaking down sugars. Nerve cells manage to transmit messages across the body via electrical impulses, which is probably what you're thinking of.

Now, there has been some success in bringing dead people back to life by shocking them (and Larry Flynt might back me up on that). This is more or less what defibrillation is. But it works only in limited circumstances.

In a normally functioning heart, electrical impulses cascade across the muscle cells, telling them when to contract. If something screws that up, you could have half your heart pushing and half your heart pulling, and that's bad. Or you could have none of your heart doing anything, and that's worse. However, a well-controlled shock, compliments of a defibrillator, can start the nerve impulses going in their natural rhythm again, and the ol' ticker just keeps on going.

But defibrillation only works on recently "dead" people. Once the body starts to decompose, you've got bigger problems. You see, those precious enzymes your teacher was going on about are the body's workers, the proletariat if you will. These enzymes are made and regulated by DNA, the biochemical bourgeois. Without the DNA, the body can't run too long. For further proof of this, witness the fate of the former Soviet Union.

Contrary to your statement, DNA isn't eternal. There are certain types of enzymes in the body, called DNAases, that chop DNA up into little tiny bits. They defend the body against inappropriate DNA activities. Your DNA is usually kept safe inside the nucleus of the cell (think of it as the Bastille), where there are no DNAases. But maintaining that sort of barrier takes energy, which your cells get from sugar. And they get sugar from your blood, which gets to your cells 'cause your heart pumps it there.

Starting to get the picture? You die, heart stops, blood flow stops, cells run out of energy, and things fall apart. The walls of the Bastille come tumbling down, and in come the DNAases, with pitchforks and torches, and they lynch your DNA, chopping it up into tiny bits. This is also why you aren't going to visit Jurassic Park any time soon.

Now, these bits of DNA then stick around for quite some time, which is probably what you mean when you say that DNA lasts forever. But chunks of DNA are no good for making and regulating enzymes. We can still analyze long dead DNA, ''cause DNA analysis requires chopping the DNA up anyway. But trying to run a cell with it don't work so good. Imagine if we had Marie Antionette's head on one side and her body on the other. We could tell exactly what she looked like, but let's just say she wouldn't be feeding anyone cake.

So, in short, it'll take more than a good bolt of lightning to reanimate dead tissue. Which is probably for the best. After all, Dr. Frankenstein paid a steep price for messing with the natural order of things--and he never saw a cent from the movie deals, either.

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