A biology student's view on zombies

Topics regarding the study of zombie behavior and physiology. Know your enemy.

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A biology student's view on zombies

Post by bustead » Fri Jan 31, 2014 7:56 am

I am a biology student and I am really interested in zombies. So I joined this forum and I did a bit of research in zombies and I am happy to share my results with you all in my first post.
Let's start with the zombie pathogen. Most people consider the zombie plague is caused by a mutated virus. But I guess there are other suitable candidates out there.

Firstly, behavior-altering parasites are known to be "mind controling" infected insects . Parasites most commonly target the central nervous system (CNS) in order to alter animal behavior. By affecting hormone secretions or by physical restructuring, parasites successfully change how an animal’s body functions and delivers, interprets and reacts to messages. These tiny parasitic worms are widely spreaded all over the world and one of them called Spinochordodes tellinii targets grasshoppers. When a grasshopper is infected, this parasite is able to influence its host's behavior: once the parasite is fully grown, it causes its grasshopper host to jump into water (by secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones), where the grasshopper will likely drown. The parasite then leaves its host; reproduces in water and seek the next victim to continue the cycle. Also there is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which infect rats and "mind control" them to chrarge towards the nearest cat. Once the rat is eaten, the parasite enter the cat's body and reproduce. Toxoplasma gondii IS KNOWN TO INFECT HUMANS! A number of studies have suggested subtle behavioral or personality changes may occur in infected humans, and infection with the parasite has recently been associated with a number of neurological disorders, particularly schizophrenia Infection in humans can occur by consuming raw or undercooked meat containing T. gondii tissue cysts or from a blood transfusion or organ transplant. Studies estimate that up to a third of the global population has been exposed to and may be chronically infected with T. gondii but T. gondii generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults. Only infants, HIV/AIDS patients, and others with weakened immunity maybe endagered. However I feel that if one is determined to make a zombie pathogen, this parasite is a perfect starting point.

Secondly, a fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is notoriously known for "mind controlling" ants. The fungus's spores enter the body of the insect likely through the cuticle by enzymatic activity, where they begin to consume the non-vital soft tissues. Yeast stages of the fungus spread in the ant's body and produce compounds that affect the ant's brain and change its behavior. Once an ant is infected, it will fall from the tree where it normally lives, climbs on the stem of a plant, clamps its mandibles on a leaf and dies there, while the fungus consumes its tissues and grows outside it, releasing its spores to infect more ants. This even inspired game developers to make a game called "The Last of Us". However no fungus infection is known to cause any noticeable change in behavior in humans for now. They are also confined to dark, wet and warm tropical forests due to their sensitivity to UV light and dehydration so it is hard to modify these fungus into a perfect zombie pathogen. Still it is not impossible to modify them using genetic engineering technologies (discussed below).

As for a viral infection, I believe Rabies virus is the closest pathogen to a zombie virus. Symptoms of rabies infection includes slight or partial paralysis, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium and hydrophobia. Patient are also exceptionally aggressive, violently attacking others due to hallucinations and brain damage. Death almost invariably results 2 to 10 days after first symptoms. Survival is rare once symptoms have presented, even with the administration of proper and intensive care. The virus (like the zombie pathogen we are looking for) is usually, but not necessarily, transmitted by a bite since the virus is usually present in the nerves and saliva of a symptomatic rabid animal. Organ transplants can be a way to transmit the virus too (infections by corneal transplant have been reported in Thailand and France ). However its incubation period is too long (up to 6 years) and even if the victim is going to be turned into a zombie after he is dead, the long turning time (2-10 days) would not be ideal for creating a zombie outbreak. Another problem for rabies is that it is rather easy to defeat: Rabies vaccines are highly effective and the virus is too sensitive to UV and heat. That's why it is not our zombie pathogen... Unless it is genetically modified.

Genetic engineering can help evil people who can't wait for a zombie outbreak or governments which wants a new type of bio-weapon to create their perfect zombie pathogen. Let's start from rabies virus, it is a deadly virus but we will have to increase its reproduction rate to suit our needs. This can be done by cutting chunks of RNA from the infamous Norovirus (a strain of this virus called Norwalk virus causes an outbreak of acute viral gastroenteritis among children at Bronson Elementary School in November 1968) with suitable ribozymes (like RNase P). The incubation period for this virus is rather short (48 hours at most) and this will help the infected turn faster. The chunk of freshly cut RNA is "stuck" onto the RNA in rabies virus by RNA ligase so that the rabies virus created will have a low incubation period. Then a chunk of RNA from Ebola virus can also be added so that the infected can spread this disease via Hemorrhage (Bleeding from mucous membranes and puncture sites). Zombies caused by this pathogen will therefore able to spit blood everywhere to infect people. The Ebola virus is also known for its high fatality (3 outbreaks of a strain of ebola virus reached 100% fatality rate. The average fatality rate of all outbreaks of all strains is about 70%) and no cure is found for this virus. The result will surely be a nightmare for the living!

However zombies created by our pathogen is no more then a madman. The infected maybe unable to feel pain (due to brain damage) but anything that will kill you can kill it. Still a headshot is preferred since body shots will not stop the infected within seconds unless the heart or the lungs is hit by a high cal. round (like .50 or so). The infected will also be a bit sluggish in movement compairing to a human but it is still way faster than those in the walking dead. Also these infected are NOT DEAD. They are infected, they are mad, they are zombies but their heart and lungs still functioning! So it is possible (yet impractical) for the government to catch them all and throw them into a quarantine zone and wait until a cure is made. The infected will also be valuable to and hunger and thrist so the outbreak cannot destroy the world since the infected will be staved to death after a few weeks or, at most, a few months. This plague will only (?!) kill a few million instead of billions, even if water did not ran out and the virus is forgiving enough to its victims.
That's it for now. Wanna to ask questions?
PS: I felt that I am quite evil after writing this.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Boondock » Fri Jan 31, 2014 1:32 pm

I enjoyed reading. Thanks. Welcome to ZS.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Ad'lan » Fri Jan 31, 2014 1:55 pm

What a fantastic first post.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by JackBauer » Fri Jan 31, 2014 3:13 pm

Awesome thereoms and analysis. Welcome to ZS.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by fred.greek » Fri Jan 31, 2014 7:51 pm

For a "layman" zombie "cause", I like a fungus… They can exist in "small" batches, or cover square miles. They can digest or infest whatever they encounter, but can also use their digestion to "aid" other organisms with which they establish a symbiosis. As a "goo", they can enter an organism thru any opening in the protective membrane, or they can be an airborne spore. The spore can remain dormant for a long time, perhaps only becoming active when the infected entity dies and the "immune" system is no longer there to fight the spore in its attempts to mature.

A fungus could "digest" what the zombie eats, even without a human digestive system, and by digesting the bacteria that would otherwise rot a corpse, keep the dead "relatively" fresh. Thru fungus tendrils throughout a body, it could "feed" cells of the body.

The stereotypical zombie bite would of course induce a significant load of fungus directly into the soon to be new zombie.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by bustead » Fri Jan 31, 2014 10:05 pm

fred.greek wrote:For a "layman" zombie "cause", I like a fungus… They can exist in "small" batches, or cover square miles. They can digest or infest whatever they encounter, but can also use their digestion to "aid" other organisms with which they establish a symbiosis. As a "goo", they can enter an organism thru any opening in the protective membrane, or they can be an airborne spore. The spore can remain dormant for a long time, perhaps only becoming active when the infected entity dies and the "immune" system is no longer there to fight the spore in its attempts to mature.

A fungus could "digest" what the zombie eats, even without a human digestive system, and by digesting the bacteria that would otherwise rot a corpse, keep the dead "relatively" fresh. Thru fungus tendrils throughout a body, it could "feed" cells of the body.

The stereotypical zombie bite would of course induce a significant load of fungus directly into the soon to be new zombie.
As far as humans know, fungus are more of a mild disease. It can be easily defeated by the human immune system and drugs. Also the fungus will digest the zombie itself rather than the food it eats and the fungus will grow in size overtime so the zombie will be turned into a massive fungus growth after a while.
Still fungus can cause a zombie outbreak if it is genetically modified. For example it can be modified for UV and drug resistance or a prolonged incubation period. What you said is not impossible if you know how to obtain tools of genetic engineering (for example DNA ligase or restriction enzymes) and DIY :twisted:

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by JayceSlayn » Fri Jan 31, 2014 11:23 pm

I like your outline of a set of potential "disaster" pathogens (in contrast to strictly "zombie pathogens" - since as you mention these would still be living hosts), and the outline of a somewhat feasible scenario for their genesis. I imagine the process of intentional modification of these viruses is significantly more difficult than is said in so few words, but it sounds evil enough for a Bond-villain-type person. :)

While the laboratory techniques for lateral gene transfer are advanced, I don't think they would necessarily be the hardest part for someone to construct a new virus from. Obtaining the gene stocks of Ebola and Norovirus (which I believe any laboratory repositories of these two would be highly secured) would probably be considerably more difficult than rabies, for one. If you had sequence-level data, I guess you could create (or order online!) the necessary RNA oligonucleotides, but I wonder whether or not the chimera virus would automatically be viable or not, or if significant tweaking of its genome would still be necessary.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Ad'lan » Sat Feb 01, 2014 3:54 am

JayceSlayn wrote: I imagine the process of intentional modification of these viruses is significantly more difficult than is said in so few words, but it sounds evil enough for a Bond-villain-type person. :)
With the way Bio-tech is developing, what is Bond Villain today will be kitchen sink terrorism in 20 years. Engineered Bio-Weapons are one of the scariest things out there. I almost like the idea of a zombie plague because it's more survivable than something like weaponised small-pox. That might well be the same thought behind who ever is designing it.



Also, the idea of killing a zombie only to release millions of spores, which if they infect your lungs turn you into a zombie (or reanimate you) is something I want to see in fiction. It's awesome.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by bustead » Sat Feb 01, 2014 9:06 am

JayceSlayn wrote:I like your outline of a set of potential "disaster" pathogens (in contrast to strictly "zombie pathogens" - since as you mention these would still be living hosts), and the outline of a somewhat feasible scenario for their genesis. I imagine the process of intentional modification of these viruses is significantly more difficult than is said in so few words, but it sounds evil enough for a Bond-villain-type person. :)

While the laboratory techniques for lateral gene transfer are advanced, I don't think they would necessarily be the hardest part for someone to construct a new virus from. Obtaining the gene stocks of Ebola and Norovirus (which I believe any laboratory repositories of these two would be highly secured) would probably be considerably more difficult than rabies, for one. If you had sequence-level data, I guess you could create (or order online!) the necessary RNA oligonucleotides, but I wonder whether or not the chimera virus would automatically be viable or not, or if significant tweaking of its genome would still be necessary.
Well obtaining norovirus is easy. It is common for hospitals in warm areas to store samples for it since it is not rare to see nowadays. As for ebola... you have to be a researcher in the lab to even get close to it BUT its RNA profile is obtainable online (via paid networks used by biologists. You may also take a look in scientific journals like nature to look for this data). And yes it will need some minor tweaking to make the virus 100% reliable but it is something achievable for people who have the knowlage.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by azrael99 » Tue Feb 18, 2014 10:32 pm

this will be a interesting thread.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Pax Zin2 » Fri Jun 13, 2014 1:57 pm

I have to agree with this thought process, that it's going to be a 'living' creature that acts as a zombie. Too many times, zombies are presented as 'dead' that have arisen to walk the planet. Anything that can alter the mind in such a way that induces paranoia, hallucinations, or psychotic behavior is probably going to end up as our 'zombie'.

We can discount most drugs, alcohol, or digested/ingested substances, because our bodies would eventually pass them through the system. The longest lasting effects would be those that directly attack the brain and spinal cord. Either by altering the chemistry, or re-establishing new links (bypassing established thought processes).

I'd say that of those that contracted some form of contagion, they'd be more of a threat to themselves than the world at-large. Some of their symptoms and side-effects could involve a decline in motor skills or logic. Their senses might be dulled (blindness, deafness, etc.) With an already weakened immune system, they'd be subject to other ailments. Depending on if they had care givers, or means of restraint, only the most violent would pose any risk to outsiders, and most likely, would get shot if they attacked someone.

We can't say that everyone would have the same effects to whatever agent were identified as the 'zombie concoction'. Some of us, might be completely immune, or suffer cold-like symptoms, yet others, might die soon after the agent is introduced to their system. We all have differences, both biological and chemical. A brief look at previous pandemics will show that not everyone suffered from the black plague or small pox. I'd say that only a well-engineered and targeted agent would be effective against a majority of the population, but even that might be regional because of diet, exposure, or other elements.

As far as immunities, some might be natural or acquired once the exposed has managed to create an antibody or re-establish new neural pathways (to compensate for the damaged ones). We've seen this a number of times where someone suffers from head trauma, and manages to function just as they did before. The human body is resilient, and compensates well for lost functions or abilities.

A thought comes to mind, with the movie "I am Legend", where Will Smith's character, Robert Neville is analyzing the Krippa virus. He describes it as 'elegant' because of the virus' ability to manipulate itself (and the host) in order for it to persist. When the virus causes a fever, the virus instructs the host (humans) to increase heart rate and breathing, instead of allowing the immune system to counter it. With an increased heart rate, the strength and speed is also increased. This produces a fever reduced cognitive thinking process, while it increases the (modified) human to live within the confines of the virus. This would be the 'zombie' I would fear the most. (those dead things walking around, just open a man hole cover and throw in an alarm clock.)

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by wee drop o' bush » Sun Jun 15, 2014 5:35 pm

Great post :v:
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by bustead » Mon Jun 16, 2014 1:48 am

Pax Zin2 wrote:I have to agree with this thought process, that it's going to be a 'living' creature that acts as a zombie. Too many times, zombies are presented as 'dead' that have arisen to walk the planet. Anything that can alter the mind in such a way that induces paranoia, hallucinations, or psychotic behavior is probably going to end up as our 'zombie'.

We can discount most drugs, alcohol, or digested/ingested substances, because our bodies would eventually pass them through the system. The longest lasting effects would be those that directly attack the brain and spinal cord. Either by altering the chemistry, or re-establishing new links (bypassing established thought processes).

I'd say that of those that contracted some form of contagion, they'd be more of a threat to themselves than the world at-large. Some of their symptoms and side-effects could involve a decline in motor skills or logic. Their senses might be dulled (blindness, deafness, etc.) With an already weakened immune system, they'd be subject to other ailments. Depending on if they had care givers, or means of restraint, only the most violent would pose any risk to outsiders, and most likely, would get shot if they attacked someone.

We can't say that everyone would have the same effects to whatever agent were identified as the 'zombie concoction'. Some of us, might be completely immune, or suffer cold-like symptoms, yet others, might die soon after the agent is introduced to their system. We all have differences, both biological and chemical. A brief look at previous pandemics will show that not everyone suffered from the black plague or small pox. I'd say that only a well-engineered and targeted agent would be effective against a majority of the population, but even that might be regional because of diet, exposure, or other elements.

As far as immunities, some might be natural or acquired once the exposed has managed to create an antibody or re-establish new neural pathways (to compensate for the damaged ones). We've seen this a number of times where someone suffers from head trauma, and manages to function just as they did before. The human body is resilient, and compensates well for lost functions or abilities.

A thought comes to mind, with the movie "I am Legend", where Will Smith's character, Robert Neville is analyzing the Krippa virus. He describes it as 'elegant' because of the virus' ability to manipulate itself (and the host) in order for it to persist. When the virus causes a fever, the virus instructs the host (humans) to increase heart rate and breathing, instead of allowing the immune system to counter it. With an increased heart rate, the strength and speed is also increased. This produces a fever reduced cognitive thinking process, while it increases the (modified) human to live within the confines of the virus. This would be the 'zombie' I would fear the most. (those dead things walking around, just open a man hole cover and throw in an alarm clock.)
I think you are right. The individual variations of humans are going to affect the zombie pathogens in different ways. However (WARNING:serious biology ahead)...
1. The senses of the infected may increase or remain unchanged depending on the pathogen/individual variations. For example, Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite which I mentioned in the post) may cause behavioral or personality changes but there is no evidence that it will damage senses. If a mad scientist/genetic engineer is to modify its genes to cause zombie-like symptoms on the infected, then chances are the infected will not have damaged senses unless the parasite is modified to attack visual cortex (for sights) or the temporal lobe (for hearing) or unpredicted mutation/immune response affected the pathogen (which is rather unlikely).
2. If the pathogen strikes fast enough then immunity may not exist. Our immune system is divided into 2 parts: specific mechanisms and non-specific mechanisms. When you are bitten by a zombie, the first one to react will be non-specific mechanism but depending on the type of pathogen that the zombie pathogen is modified from, the entire mechanism can be defeated (a viral infection), rendered ineffective (a fungi/protist with resistance to lysozyme secreted by phagocytes or glands) or even bypassed (like prions). Now if non-specific immune response is defeated fast enough or bypassed entirely, specific immune response will have a decreased efficiency because the specific immune response system needs to be activated via a process called "antigen presentation" where certain cells from non-specific defense mechanism will be needed in the process. If that happens the antibody production rate will be very low in the initial stages of infection so the pathogen can kill (or in case of a zombie pathogen, transform) a patient if it act fast enough. Also the pathogen can destroy T-cells instead (like what HIV does). Without T-cells there will be no immune response, just like a shotgun lacking a trigger cannot be fired.
However you are right about a regional outbreak. The zombie pathogen cannot adopt to all environments in the world unless it mutates on regular basis. But again the damage of a zombie outbreak is done by the hosts (zombies) and these hosts will be taken down easily once the military response with deadly force so even if the pathogen is adopted to all kinds of environments on earth, it will still be a regional outbreak.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by ctstough » Fri Jul 11, 2014 10:26 pm

I would have to say I vote for a Virus that acts like the parasites you mentioned.

The primary purpose of any creature is procreation of it's DNA. To replicate. To live. I have problems with any Zombie theory that doesn't support this basic idea.

So whatever it is that is turning people into a Zombie is doing so so that it can spread itself. Therefor, the Zombie's behavior must support replication. Hence, infecting other humans.

Zombies spread this 'virus' by biting until mouth gets to blood.

On this basis, it makes no sense to have a Zombie that eats it's victim. Once the 'virus' is spread, the Zombies should stop eating.

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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Zimmy » Sun Jul 13, 2014 10:57 am

Great thread!
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by maldon007 » Sun Jul 13, 2014 11:25 am

ctstough wrote:I would have to say I vote for a Virus that acts like the parasites you mentioned.

The primary purpose of any creature is procreation of it's DNA. To replicate. To live. I have problems with any Zombie theory that doesn't support this basic idea.

So whatever it is that is turning people into a Zombie is doing so so that it can spread itself. Therefor, the Zombie's behavior must support replication. Hence, infecting other humans.

Zombies spread this 'virus' by biting until mouth gets to blood.

On this basis, it makes no sense to have a Zombie that eats it's victim. Once the 'virus' is spread, the Zombies should stop eating.
Many viruses act counter intuitive in regards to how they spread and what they cause the victim to do, like die. If viruses made sense, they would never cause death or disability which would preclude or hinder the spread from that victim to others. A virus really has no idea what problems it is causing, it just survives and replicates as it can, and maybe not through the exact ways we think of as most efficient.

Also, there is no reason a virus wouldn't mutate into a form that was particularly NOT in its best interests, as far as longevity... Ebola type results may make no sense but why should it?

A virus that causes every human on the earth to die, would probably end that viruses existence but viruses go in and out of existence and go extinct and mutate into very different creatures all the time.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Zimmy » Sun Jul 13, 2014 11:51 am

Be gentle, I was just a mechanic drunk on Scotch when I wrote this last night.

The bacteria that create zombies excrete a neurotransmitter enzyme that initiates an electrochemical reaction between nerve cells. This overloads living humans cerebral cortex causing fever, confusion, excitability, seizure, and stroke.

Zombie bacteria do not harm human flesh. They eat non-human organisms like mold, fungus, bacteria, and viruses in the body. This keeps the zombie from rotting as a normal body would.

The constant addition of neurotransmitter enzyme as the zombie bacteria fights off fresh invaders allows the lizard brain to maintain some semblance of function and maintain signal strength through the body.

One side effect of the infection is a hypersensitivity to biological electromagnetic fields. The zombie can sense these fields at short range. Ingesting living flesh allows the zombie's field to absorb energy from the victims flesh and thus improve function. The lizard brain recognizes this benefit and seeks to repeat it as often as possible to improve itself.

Zombies form hordes because they are able to mix fields with the other zombies in proximity. This can form an almost colony like community that functions together almost like a school of fish. Zombies don't eat other zombies because ingestion of flesh is not required to share the magnetic field.

The brain and central nervous system are the most concentrated spots of this energy. This explains the preponderance of bites to the head and neck of victims. After brain death, the energy drops off sharply but continues for up to a day at far decreased levels. Only extremely weak zombies eat corpses over an hour dead and none eat flesh after 24 hours.

Theoretically, if you kept a whale alive long enough for a zombie to eat his brain that zombie could probably tell you his name and the address of his uber-stocked missile silo turned bunker in Idaho.

Those who succumb to infection from a bite have had time to circulate the bacteria throughout the body and reanimate almost immediately. Those infected who die from trauma take longer depending on the amount of time it takes to get spread out and get the CNS up and running.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Zimmy » Sun Jul 13, 2014 12:03 pm

Oh, and zombies do not like being in water because water grounds out some of the energy surrounding the creature and weakens it. Think of it as an aura such as described by mystics.

With the field weakened and the zombie's traditional senses like sight, hearing ect already damaged, the zombie's chances of finding prey are much lower in water. This situation is automatically rejected by the lizard brain.
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by maldon007 » Sun Jul 13, 2014 3:51 pm

Sounds like your ready to write some stories!
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Re: A biology student's view on zombies

Post by Zimmy » Sun Jul 13, 2014 4:18 pm

Maybe some day I will. I don't know if I can afford that much scotch.

The big thing is I love putting things together. Since I love science and zombie fiction, I put together pieces of the stories and tried to figure out how it might work.
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