Guest Book Review by Dr Claire Walker: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

Girlymicro is currently laid up with shingles and despite having tried to negotiate with the virus, it appears they have not been able to come to terms in order for her to be able to be well enough to blog. The ever inspiring Dr Walker has leapt into the breach to ensure that you are not forced to spend a week without science based entertainment. She is, as ever, wonderful.

Guest Book Review –  Dr Claire Walker

Paid up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered clinical scientist in immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a senior lecturer in immunology at University of Lincoln.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. A genre bending thriller about female power and a fun take on the premise of asexual reproduction.

Judging a book by its cover?

What draws you to pick up a new book? In my limited time post baby two, I look at a few one line reviews on my Amazon account and hope for the best. Girl One By Sara Flannery Murphy caught my attention for being described as ‘Orphan Black meets Margret Atwood’. One of my favourite pseudo-scientific TV shows and my favourite speculative fiction author? Sold.

The Story

In Girl One Murphy focuses on a group of women who are the subject of a fertility experiment in rural America. She tells the story of the nine ‘miracle babies’ born without male DNA, the result of ‘virgin birth’, or to use the scientific term, parthenogenesis. The premise of the book is that a massive leap forward was made in reproductive science in the 1970s allowing human parthenogenesis. The actual process of human parthenogenesis is shrouded in mystery and lost with the untimely death of the rather shady scientist and would be father figure, Dr Joseph Bellinger. The progeny of the experiment scatter after this event and try to live normal lives away from zealots who target them for being against the natural order of things. The unexpected disappearance of her mother leads the first of these children, Girl One, on a road trip of discovery unlocking the secrets of their origins.

The Science

This is a science blog, so let’s put the superpowers and 1970s feminist manifesto to one-side for a moment. In the natural world, parthenogenesis is business as usual for some species of plants, insects, lizards and, most recently documented, California Condors. But what about humans? Has Murphy taken speculative fiction a step too far?

Until relatively recently, it was believed that parthenogenesis in humans never produced viable embryos. Human parthenogenesis itself is not actually such a rare event. The spontaneous activation of a woman’s egg without the presence of sperm is well documented. Unfortunately, this process results in the development of an ovarian teratoma. These tumours present as anatomically disorganised structures that have been documented to contain hair, limbs and even teeth. 

In his review On human parthenogenesis Dr Gabriel de Carli, discusses the serendipitous discovery of chimeric human parthenotes, or in plain English, children who have two cell lineages in their bodies – the closest thing to human parthenogenesis identified thus far. These children have cells that are the result of the normal fertilisation process, and cells that are the result of human parthenogenesis that have fused together. The first child, described in 1995, was a little boy whose white blood cells were shown to contain no Y chromosome whilst the other cells of his body were genetically male. The X chromosomes in the boy’s white blood cells were shown to be identical to each other, and both were derived from his mother revealing their origin to be from a ‘virgin birth’ event. So, whilst incredibly rare, we now know a form of parthenogenesis is possible, and more importantly, viable in humans.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Dr de Carli believes that rare cases of full human parthenogenesis occur and pass unnoticed. In fact, he thinks that as we enter the era of whole genome sequencing of all new babies, we are on the cusp of identifying these individuals. Only time will tell if they have the superpowers described in Girl One.

TLDR: A superhero take on 1970s feminism with a pinch of dystopian gender politics and smattering of not-quite-totally-fictional science. Not at all bad.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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