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The Real Biology of “Star Wars” Midichlorians
The George Lucas Star Wars saga spans multiple generations of characters (and fans), seven movies to date, and future sequels that will apparently extend the series into infinity. Star Wars is deeply rooted in the world’s popular culture. But what is the underlying theme of Star Wars? Here are some flawed possibilities:
1. We are not alone: Although there may be other intelligent life in the universe, intergalactic travel is not and will not be feasible. The distances are too great and we cannot travel faster than the speed of light (as per Einstein).
2. Integration of technology and humans: Humans can manipulate their environment with ever improving technology. However C-3PO and R2-D2 were never upgraded or replaced which goes against our current pattern of upgrading our smart technology at least once a year.
3. Inevitability of war: The pessimistic view is that humanoids are predisposed to conflict and perpetual war. Peace is just a lull before the next battle. Sadly, this may be true.
4. Oppression by overly powerful governments: The Empire certainly abused its power, but real historical examples already exist: the Axis powers during WWII, Stalinism, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Islamic Caliphate (both medieval and current).
5. Good vs. Evil in a Godless universe: Hardly original, but Star Wars does exemplify moral choice. Although there is an all-powerful Force, it is ambivalent and not judgmental.
A better theme for the entire Star Wars saga is the pervasiveness of the Force, a concept that George Lucas borrowed from modern biology. The Force is the inner source of energy that powers all living things and is manifested as an intracellular symbiotic life form called Midichlorians. The name is a combination of Mitochondria (the endosymbionts that power your cells) and Chloroplasts (the endosymbionts that perform photosynthesis in plants). In this is dialog from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the source of the Force is revealed.
In the fictional George Lucas universe, Midichlorians have the following characteristics:
• Midichlorians are unequally distributed allowing some characters to be wildly more powerful than others. The haughty aloofness of the Jedi and the power-hungry corruptness of the Emperor are fueled by Midichlorians leading to eternal conflict and war.
• Midichlorians can be measured in a rapid blood test, the concentration of which determines one’s potential.
• Midichlorians are inherited making genetics the key determinant in one’s fate. Contrary to the principles of liberal democracy, the characters were not created equally.
• Midichlorian concentrations are not necessarily increased with physical training. The purpose of Jedi/Sith training is to make one more in touch with one’s inner symbionts and perhaps increase one’s physicality and coordination to better match the inner power.
• Midichlorians are all powerful and devoutly respected but are apolitical, neither good nor evil.
Anakin had the highest Midichlorian concentrations of all the characters (even greater than master Yoda’s), but who was Anakin’s father? Anakin’s mother dubiously claimed immaculate conception, but the leading paternal suspect is the comically–appearing Watto. The cinematic evidence includes:
1. Watto was able to fly (i.e. sky walk) with tiny wings that defied aerodynamic physics. He more likely perpetually and effortlessly levitated his own body with telekinesis (his wings were just hiding that ability). The other Star Wars characters could only perform telekinesis for short spurts that required great concentration.
2. Watto was the slave owner of both Anakin and Anakin’s mother.
3. Watto was immune to Jedi mind tricks.
4. Watto was a master of character manipulation and technology.
5. A “Watt” is the standard unit of Power in the International System of Units.
6. Watto’s slavemaster/slave relationship with Anakin’s mother is a feasible deniable scandal.
7. Watto was Anakin’s first mentor.
Similarities between real Mitochondria and fictional Midichlorians:
• Mitochondria power human athleticism as well as every process in the human body.
• Mitochondrial concentrations are greater in star athletes, endowing Tour de France competitors with VO2 max readings and muscle power wattages far greater than amateur cyclists.
• Mitochondria are intracellular symbionts that live within our cells.
• Mitochondria are inherited.
• Mitochondria pre-date animals and humans.
• Mitochondria are related to ancient bacteria with their own DNA that is separate from human DNA.
• Humans are not pure beings, but rather we are cohabitated conglomerations.
Faults in George Lucas’ Midichlorian logic:
1. Children are not born with higher mitochondrial concentrations, but physical training can trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, which can increase mitochondrial concentrations and energy production in fit athletes. This is the basis of my book with Greg LeMond, The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance.
2. Human red blood cells eject their nuclei and mitochondria during erythrogenesis and therefore a blood test would not be an accurate measure of mitochondrial density. Mitochondrial diseases are confirmed with a technically more difficult muscle biopsy.
3. Pre-pubertal Anakin is deemed too old to begin Jedi training. However, the teenage growth spurt when adolescent hormones surge is the age when exercise multiplies our mitochondria the most and is why childhood exercise is so important.
4. Mitochondria are inherited maternally, not paternally. Therefore Darth Vader’s famous line told to Luke (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back) would have to be: “No…I am your Mother!” That has an entirely different ring to it, but Lucas is allowed some literary license for that one.
Dr. Mark Hom is a Johns Hopkins University trained biologist, an award-winning medical illustrator, an interventional radiologist, an educator of young doctors, an Elsevier author, and an avid fitness cyclist. Dr. Hom’s work with Greg LeMond in their recent book The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance explains how the human body, various organ systems, and individual cells function in the biologic process of exercise. He is currently a member of the Department of Radiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, USA.
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