Monster of the Week: The Mummy

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED July 25, 2013
The Mummy's clutch... (© Bettmann/CORBIS) ‘Mummy thirsty, Michael…’ (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

You’re probably aware of the world’s ongoing mummy crisis. These desiccated bodies were once the honored dead of ancient Egypt, specially prepared for journey into the lands beyond death. But then unscrupulous grave robbers raided their tombs and stole them away to museums around the world.

So today these ancient beings awaken from their millennial slumbers and enact grisly revenge on those who defiled their tombs. While often slow and lumbering, their crushing grip and embalming expertise (see below) make short work of their fleshy victims.

The Science of Anhydrobiosis
You might well attribute a mummy’s return to sorcery, but its means of resurrection can be found in real-world biology: anhydrobiosis (literally “life without water”), a state of suspended animation in a dry, ametabolic condition. In other words, the specimen survives without water and without undergoing metamorphosis for an extended period of time. So-called resurrection plants such as Selaginella lepidophylla are especially good at the anhydrobiosis, entering a dry, dormant state between rains that may last years. Elsewhere in the plant kingdom, lotus seeds have germinated successfully after 1,000 years in the dust.

As far as animals go, a number of extremophile organisms also undergo anhydrobiosis. Yet aside from the mummy itself, the only multicellular animals known to bounce back from the dry reaches are rotifers, nematode worms and tardigrades (waterbears). These creatures can undergo anhydrobiosis at any state of their development, while other animals such as brine shrimp (AKA sea monkeys) can survive as dried-out eggs for 15 years.

Any plant or animal can dry the hell out, but how do these specimens bounce back without sustaining desiccation damage? Some organisms produce the sugar trehalose or sucrose to protect cells, while others utilize highly hydrophilic LEA proteins. Scientists continue to study these amazing organisms for clues to the secret of life without water.

 Anhydrobiosis and Humans
Is anyrdrobiosis possible with human beings? The example presented by our shambling mummies seems to suggest so. But if the ancient Egyptians developed a means of protecting our complex biology from desiccation damage, they certainly didn’t share the secret. Yet researchers from the University of Campinas in Brazil believe anhydrobiosis might offer unique strategies in the future for the preservation of vaccines, tissue and even donor organs.

As for the mummies that roam or streets and forcibly remove our brains with a coat-hanger? We can only assume that atmospheric moisture raises them from their slumber in search of life-giving water and delicious BCE-style vengeance.

Monster of the Week is a — you guessed it — regular look at the denizens of our monster-haunted world. In some of these, we’ll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Other times, we”ll just wax philosophic about the monster’s underlying meaning. After all, the word “monstrosity” originates from the Latin monstrare, which meant to show or illustrate a point.


About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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