Wait…what? Seriously, there is on-going research, funded by the US Pentagon to investigate the possibility of giving human soldiers zombie-like characteristics. But it’s not to give soldiers the trivial characteristics such as walking slowly with torn and ragged clothes, cannibalism or the freaky appearance. But rather the more useful wartime traits such as the ability to sustain massive head wounds or simply not dying when shot multiple times.
In 2002, Darpa, an almost sci-fi research branch of the US military, asked the US Congress for $78 million-per-year funding for research in making “better human soldiers.” The reason? The human soldier was the weakest link in the military defense chain. The only problem was how to do it.
About 10 years earlier, biochemist Mark Roth became interested in the idea of immortality after losing his daughter at the age of 1 to heart failure. Based the observation of animal hibernation and the fact that their cells must undergo some type of suspended animation, Roth set out to decipher this process. His research led him to nematodes, or worms. He knew that if deprived of oxygen, the worms didn’t die; they simply enter suspended animation. Even though their little hearts stop beating and they don’t breath, they don’t die. Even their wounds stop bleeding and they can sustain almost any injury without significant damage to the brain! Worm zombies! The nematode undead!
But how could one remove the oxygen levels just enough without killing the creature first? Roth pondered this and his breakthrough came after finding that the gas, hydrogen sulfide, can bind to a cell’s mitochondria (a cellular organelle that uses oxygen) and deprive it of oxygen. (As a side note, hydrogen sulfide is responsible for the “rotten egg” smell in flatulence.) Some of Roth’s first experiments included dropping oxygen levels to 5% and observing the effect it had on mice with or without hydrogen sulfide. Those without the hydrogen sulfide died in 15 minutes. However, those mice that had a whiff of the gas before entering the oxygen-deprived environment survived for 6 hours before dying!
Three years after Darpa requested the research funding from Congress, it was finally approved, with a specific task of keeping animals alive that have lost 60% of their blood. Roth’s hydrogen sulfide technique was up to the task. Giving mice some “zombie gas” and then draining 60% of their blood, these mice lived for 10 hours! For comparison, a normal (that is, non-zombie) human will die with 40% blood loss.
But the obstacle Roth and his “zombie” team must face is, when does one sniff the “zombie gas”? Typically a person doesn’t have a clue when they are about to lose 60% of their blood! Well, the research team used the nematode again to answer this problem. They found that by a continual, low-level supply of hydrogen sulfide, the worm could live considerably longer than its 2-3 week average life span…actually up to 70% longer!
This research has also lead to the application of treating trauma patients. Imagine a soldier sustaining an almost fatal wound and can’t get to a specialist in time, because the medical base is too far away or transportation is delayed. Not much hope…unless…Unless there was a way to “pause” the injury. It turns out, Roth seems to have developed such a method. By first giving wounded worms (hopefully soldiers in the near future) hydrogen sulfide, they enter suspended animation at which point they could sustain extremely cold temperatures and kept “on ice” until they can receive proper medical treatment.
This research has provided significant insight to the inner workings of a cell’s use of oxygen. Manipulating this stage of metabolism, as Roth has done, can lead to further developments for humans sustaining massive blood loss, near-lethal wounds and the ability to survive much longer in less-than-optimum environments.