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Guardians of the Hollywood squid biology

Scott Cummins sat down with his wife and young daughter one night to watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 – totally oblivious that his novel and unmistakable research was about to be name checked in the Hollywood blockbuster.

When it was mentioned, Scott was in shock.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Scott says. “It was so obviously our research because no one else would have done anything like that before.”

The research relates to his breakthrough discovery of the loligo beta-microseminoprotein aggression pheromone, which loosely translates to “rage-producing protein found in squid” – for those of us who don’t speak extreme science.

The context this highly scientific research was quoted in – and fair warning, spoilers ahead – was when Rocket the bioengineered racoon, voiced by movie star Bradley Cooper, had a flashback to the genesis of his evolution…or mutation…depending on how you want to describe it.

His creator – a geneticist known as the High Evolutionary – was explaining to a naive young Rocket that he was attempting to create a perfect species from cute and playful animals such as an otter, a walrus and a turtle.

But something was going wrong with the process.

“For some reason, these specimens are also over-producing loligo beta-microseminoprotein in their systems, causing them to be, well…violent,” the High Evolutionary said in the movie.

At first, when Scott heard the line, he momentarily thought he’d missed an email or some other form of correspondence.

“I think what would have happened is the writers would have been searching online articles about aggressive genes in animals,” Scott says.

“The research is public so I guess there’s no legal or moral obligation to contact me or any of the other researchers – it was just a shock to hear it in such a big movie like that.”

Professor Scott Cummins, who isn't in Guardians of the Galaxy. But his research is.

The research itself is fascinating – and goes some way to explaining why the writers would have used it in the context they did.

Previous research had established that schools of male longfin squid could turn from “peaceful gatherings to violent mobs”, as one National Geographic article describes it.

“One minute, individuals are swimming together in peace; the next, they’re attacking one another. The males give chase, ramming each other in the sides and grappling with their tentacles.”

It was Scott, along with fellow researchers, who identified the molecule responsible for producing the violent trigger – loligo beta-microseminoprotein – which the High Evolutionary says was being overproduced in his animal mutations.

Asked whether his life has changed since having his scientific breakthrough mentioned in the movie, Scott laughs.

“I do tell people that the prime of my scientific career is having my work mentioned in a blockbuster Hollywood movie,” he says.

“But I'm not putting it on my CV.”

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