The Phantom Menace: Episode One

The Real Midichlorians? Our Own Mitochondria

It was an unusually warm morning for Seattle as I waited in line for the noon opening of Star Wars in 1977. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing that movie and I was not disappointed. By movie's end, my life was changed. The Force was with me.

Twenty-two years later I experienced that same tingly feeling waiting in a packed movie theatre for the midnight opening of The Phantom Menace (TPM). By movie's end, the Force was still with me. Only this time I had an explanation.

Like X-wings attacking the Death Star, a vocal group of fans have expressed extreme displeasure with George Lucas for providing a scientific explanation of the Force. Why, they ask, must there be a scientific explanation for something so spiritual and beautiful as the Force? Is nothing sacred?

Somebody once remarked that the truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes facing the truth can be a painful experience. It robs us of our fantasies. It limits the infinite to one good explanation. But there is also beauty in truth, a beauty that surpasses even the greatest  fiction. If science has taught us anything, it has taught us that Nature and the Universe are far more grand and wondrous than any fiction ever portrayed.

Now I'm not about to suggest that the Force is a real thing. In all my heart, I would like it to be, but try as I may, I cannot make the little Yoda figure on top of my computer leap into my hands. (And as far as I know, no one else has credibly reproduced this trick either.) However, there just might be a Force. It just might be real. And if it is real, it will have a scientific explanation. (Don't groan yet, hear me out...)

I doubt that very many people who saw TPM are aware of the scientific theory on which the midichlorians are undoubtedly based. George Lucas may admit it, but I'm here to tell you that he didn't make the midichlorians up. He changed their name a little. But he didn't make them up.

Have you ever heard of mitochondria? Mitochondria are tiny organelles (little organs) that reside in every cell in your body. They supply energy in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) to every cell in your body. You can think of them as microscopic power packs for you cells if that makes it any easier. Every human on our planet has mitochondria in their bodies. One per cell. All cells. Without them, we wouldn't move a muscle. They are the cell's power plant.

Knowledge of mitochondria is not new. Pick up any good biology or biochemistry textbook and you will find it crammed with information on mitochondria. Hell, if you think I'm making this up, do a search for mitochondria. You will find more hits than you'll want to read.

What is fairly recent about mitochondria is the idea that they come from an ancient microscopic life form, namely a primitive bacterium. This idea was first popularized Dr. Lynn Margulis at MIT.  In that book, she presents scientific evidence that appears to support the idea that mitochondria derive from an ancient bacterium. The strongest evidence comes from a biochemical analyses of the mitochondria, which, like plant chloroplasts, have their own set of DNA. Comparisons of the DNA of mitochondria (and chloroplast, for that matter) and bacteria reveal remarkable similarities.

The idea that ancient bacteria, or prokaryotes, joined together to form a "cell cooperative," or eukaryotes, has been termed endosymbiosis. Endo means within and symbiosis means living together. Symbiosis appears to be more the rule than the exception in living systems. Typical marine examples include corals, sea anenomes and clownfish, cleaner shrimp and fish, decorator crabs, and so on. Whether officially recognized as a symbiosis or not, it is clear that all living organisms and their environment are interdependent. We all depend on plants and animals to stay alive.

The same is true for mitochondria. They perform a vital function for the cell. In turn, the cell goes about its business and provides, so to speak, a place for the mitochondria to live in relative peace and quiet. The implications of endosymbiosis are quite far-reaching, mind-boggling, if you think about it. I highly encourage anyone interested in endosymbiosis to check out Margulis' book. While not everyone agrees with her (when have you ever heard of a group of scientists agreeing on anything), there does appear to be credible scientific data to support the theory of endosymbiosis.

So what does this have to do with the Force? Clearly, Lucas is attempting to strengthen and expand the mythology of the Force. If midichlorians (aka mitochondria) are ancient microscopic symbionts living within us (aka endosymbiosis), then why not give them mythical status? The Force is a kind of "energy" after all (the word Force derives from physics in the first place) and what better explanation for this energy than the "source" of energy for all cells, the midichlorians (again, the mitochondria analogy)?

Let me give you one more example of the "power" of the mitochondrial theory. Apparently, mitochondrial DNA comes only from the maternal genes. That means that our mitochondria only come from our moms. (I'm am serious not making this up.) Some years ago, scientists were able to trace back mitochondrial DNA to its maternal "origins" in Africa.  Several popular magazines reported on this first mom, as it were. I don't have the reference but I can find it if anyone is really interested.

In TPM, the virginal birth and its relationship to the midichlorians again loosely fits the analogy of mitochondria and endosymbiosis. If midichlorians only came from our mothers (in the same way that mitochondria only come from our mothers), then these "organelles" are virginal, in the sense that male genes are not required.

Now, if you are still with me and haven't sent me fifty nasty e-mails, let's speculate a little on how much better it is having a Force that comes from midichlorians or, at least, that has a scientific basis. Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, proposes that DNA essentially controls everything we do for its own benefit. That's a rough summary and I'm not going to argue the pros and cons of that theory, but consider the teachings of Qui-Gon or Obi Wan or Yoda that essentially boil down to this: the Force controls our destiny. Can you see how midichlorians and Selfish Gene Theory fit with that statement?

And here's another one: Qui-Gon's "explanation" of the Force is merely one man's opinion. Who's to say that there aren't other interpretations? Perhaps the midichlorians act to focus or put us in touch with the Force. Nobody said they had to be the Force. Perhaps they are like a cellular focal point for distributing the Force throughout our bodies. Maybe Qui-Gon is terribly misguided. He is somewhat of a radical, after all.

The point is that the introduction of the midichlorians into the story line as an explanation of the Force only made the Star Wars myth that much more powerful. It took the Force from some ethereal ill-defined property of the Universe and gave it life. It provided a greater foundation from which new and exciting manifestations of the Force could be created. It gave the Force a touch of the truth. Because when we believe in what's happening on the screen, when we can identify with the characters, their struggles and the world they live in, then the fiction we are watching becomes relevant. It gains meaning.

And that, my friends, is what makes movies so great!

Feel free to send me love mail, hate mail, need-to-know-more mail with your comments and opinions on the midichlorians. I'll try to answer you as best I can. I hope you enjoyed reading this piece. May the Force be with you, no matter where it comes from.

sean@seanboy.com