I teach a fourth year undergraduate course on the origin of life on Earth and endosymbiotic theory. I use my first lecture as an opportunity to highlight some of the interesting material that we will be covering that semester and to get the students hooked on the class. I do this by talking about several examples of endosymbiosis that are present in popular science-fiction movies.
I have a very broad definition of endosymbiosis. I classify it as two organisms living together where one organism lives inside of or is contained by the other organism. Endosymbiotic relationships exist on a spectrum of whether they are inert (e.g. not harmful or helpful), mutualistic (e.g. helpful to both parties), commensal (e.g. helpful to one, but not hurtful to the other), and parasitic (e.g. detrimental to one and beneficial to the other).
The first example that I discuss in class is from the 1979 classic film Alien. I didn’t see this film until I was a teenager and by then several sequels had been released. The first film in the franchise is a great example of how to use suspense effectively to really scare your audience. There is a classic scene in this movie that will ensure that you never look at eating in a mess hall or cafeteria the same way ever again. Long story short, the humans in this film serve as very effective incubators for the alien in a grisly endosymbiotic relationship. The relationship comes to an end in a very messy way. Unfortunately using this reference dates me a bit; usually only 2 out of 44 students have seen the film when I ask for a show of hands. I do have several students tell me after a few lectures that they ended up watching the film and liking it, so Ridley Scott’s royalties continue to serve as a revenue stream for him.
The second example that I use is from the 2009 film Avatar. The aliens in the film, the Na’vi, ride dragon and horse- like creatures. There are several short scenes in the film where a direct interaction between the Na’vi rider and direhorses or banshees is achieved by cilia like structures and a neural interface is created. I talk about this type of cellular interface as an interesting example of communication between two different endosymbionts.
The last example that I use in class is from the 1999 film The Phantom Menace. There is a scene in the film where Qui-Gon Jinn is testing Anakin Skywalker’s blood for midi-chlorians. Midi-chlorians are described as intelligent, microscopic life forms that allow their hosts to detect and use the Force if present in high enough quantities. Anakin’s midi-chlorian count is the highest ever detected and we all know how that turned out!
I use these fake examples of endosymbiosis from film to illustrate and discuss some of the concepts involved in endosymbiotic theory. They represent an interesting way to bring popular culture into the classroom and hold the interest of my students.
I’m always on the look-out for other examples of endosymbiosis in film or television; please leave any ideas in the comments!