Take two aspirin…

It’s been an eventful week, and I found myself lying here this morning thinking. I’m far from home, out of schedule (this post was supposed to be written yesterday) and have a headache. It’s all worth it, though. My eldest graduated from highschool last night. She’s a fiercely independent soul, and will go far in her studies at college.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. Toni Weisskopf shared a photo on Facebook of a computer module absolutely infested with an ant nest, seething with eggs, and her comment was that she’d like to see more stories like that in science fiction. It’s an excellent point. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read ( and written) where the tech performs flawlessly. Which does happen. There are also stories where it doesn’t, but how many can you think of where the characters have to deal with an infestation? How would we prevent that, control it, and what kind of adaptations will we see?

I’d run across an article recently about bacteria which will break down plastics that were formerly thought invulnerable. Then there was another one speculating about why less plastic (by an order of magnitude) is found in the ocean than projected, and the discovery of novel bacteria on that plastic. The concern was focused on reducing pollution, but what happens when bacteria evolve to eat stuff we want to stay intact and functional? The stories about nanotech making gray goo aren’t that far off from what bacteria are already capable of – only fortunately they are not so fast to act.

We can’t escape our invisible (to the naked eye) friends. Microbes cover every inch of us, and our surroundings. We can only culture a tiny fraction of them in the lab, we’re still working on understanding the ecology of our own “inner gardens,” but we are already harnessing the power of their replicative properties for good… With the advances in molecular genetics we can use bacteria to copy/paste stuff we want, like drug ingredients and human proteins. With enough time and development to move beyond ‘we can do that’ to ‘and cheaply!’ the future looks very interesting indeed.

So those two aspirin I want might someday be extracted from bacterial sludge. Trust me on this, if you think that’s gross you don’t want to contemplate where some modern drugs originate. Not all of them are turned out from sterile molecular synthesis. Heparin (an anticoagulant) involves tons and tons of pig guts every batch made. Think about this in terms of going to space. If we don’t come up with highly efficient methods of synthesis, there are going to be problems.

It’s fascinating to extrapolate from current science, to bleeding edge, and beyond. As a science fiction author, it’s an exercise in developing my stories into something approaching hard science. As a baby scientist, it gives me food for thought about my career (and my daughter, who plans to study molecular genetics) path in the coming years.

Will we ever harness the power of Leeuwenhoek’s animalacules? We already have, now we just need to make that more efficient. Will they slip their leashes and turn on us? Well, yes. They already have, many times. The history of pathogens and disease goes back before the dawn of history. We can read it on the bones left behind, long before men scribbled on pages or chipped runes into stone and pressed them into clay. Speaking of which, I found a neat book on KU, for the readers like me who appreciate an in-depth look at science and history – Old Bones: a brief introduction to bioarchaeology. 



  1. I remember a story where a minor point was that the major cause of heart disease in the mid 20th century was discovered to be bacteria or something that were living in/on the glue on stamps and envelopes.

  2. I can remember reading “Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater” as a kid and it terrified me. Rereading it as an adult I found that it holds up pretty well, and lays out a very believable scenario.

    1. Yep. That was a good one for scaring the heck out of me . . . and it’s still doing it. One of the best “Gotta watch those unexpected consequences” books ever.

      1. huh… if it eats plastics, specifically, then… steampunk? Dieselpunk? We’d end up right around there?

    2. As I recall, in the *book,* the scientists ended up believing that THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN had been seeded in earth orbit/upper atmosphere to do exactly that, and the hyper-lethal version that kicked off the book was a mutation. Apparently some alien race laid a minefield…

      1. Unlike Mutant 59,though, the Andromeda Strain was handleable at ground level. In the top of the atmosphere, though, it infected spaceships. A quarantine tool. Or a minefield. as I said.

  3. Read Christoper Anvil’s stories. This kind of riding gloriously thru Rome and tripping over a loose horseshoe and breaking your neck shows up as either part of longer stories or main theme of short stories. And they are funny.

  4. With apologies to Ms. Weisskopf, it sounds an awful lot like a lot of awful 1970s SF. It wasn’t just the wannabe Crichtons. Many writers wanted to “explore” the fragility of technology, particularly tech brought to it’s knees by the most mundane things. There was a story I didn’t read but remember seeing the cover, called Niche or something like that, with birds nesting in electronic hardware. There was one about plastic eating bacteria from the UK that may have been a mini-series over there. That’s how we ended up with Ewoks: George Lucas’ “vision” of a technological army brought to its knees like a stone-age tribe.

    Besides, this happens a lot more than people think. I’ve seen electrical equipment knocked out because of critters and electrical equipment continue to function when you don’t see how. That’s just my little field. It happens everywhere, like the mechanic that found the remains of a chicken in a car air intake, and it’s not uncommon to have ants infest a car. And most tech have stories where a little bit of corrosion messed things up and was temporarily fixed by applying a pencil eraser.

    It’s what anyone who fixes things deals with, from the farmer cleaning ants out of the contacts of a pump relay to a lineman cleaning the remains of a snake off substation equipment. You could say that’s realism. But it also raises the problem of a writer not asking how something actually would knock something out and simply assume that it would. The Empire could have handled the Ewoks and the Rebels with a simple application of napalm. After all, the Empire’s troops were armored.

    Maybe that’s not what Ms. Weisskopf wants. I sure hope it isn’t.

  5. Bacteria already live in electronic equipment. I had a Sinclair ZX80 computer where bacteria growing on the expansion port contacts was a regular problem.

    Ever wonder where the rubber on your tires goes when it’s worn off? There’d be big piles of it alongside roads, except bacteria have evolved that eat it.

    And, of course, the famous fictional disaster, when bacteria evolved that ate the room-temperature superconductors on the Ringworld…

  6. I just want them to figure out exactly which bacteria those of us carrying more weight than we’d like to are missing – and transplant it more efficiently than the current hit-or-miss way. Bodies should not need external supervision for weight maintenance – they don’t need it for breathing! This is not my job – and yet the world feels free to excoriate me because of something I’m KNOWN to have little control over. And that medical ‘science’ has a less-than 2% success rate with – after the victim pours in enormous amounts of effort.

  7. There was a “multiple universe” TV series that never got past the pilot stage called Doorways (about the same time as Sliders, which was probably part of the reason it never got picked up.) I got to watch it once, back when getting copies of unaired pilots was much harder than it is now, and the bulk of the episode was set on an Earth where a bacteria that ate all petroleum-based products, including plastic and tires, had gone completely wonky. The protagonist had an interesting approach to finding out what was going on: he pretended he was a writer, trying to get inside the head of a visitor to the world who needed everything explained to him. “No, no, explain it to me as though I have no idea what happened.”

  8. This is almost by definition, an example of unintended consequences! So far, not in a bad way (e.g. the plastic eating bacteria), but what happens when they move out of the sea onto land?

  9. Way back in the late 80’s I worked in IBM engineering on mainframes and there was abnormally high number of memory failures in customer machines happening. After getting some of the cards back from the field the engineers took some of the chips apart and discovered a fungus growing inside them. The problem was traced back to water impurities in the one of chip fabricators clean rooms. The problem affected several thousand chips when the mess was all sorted out

  10. One of the Bab5 episodes followed the maintenance crews having a normal day. They saved the station during an attack by bringing the defense system back online – a large bug had crawled into the circuits and shorted the control panel.

    1. Ants are attracted to electric fields. This is why when you open a padmount transformer, there’s a fire ant mound, unless it’s an area without fire ants or the ground’s been treated. They don’t short out things, though. Have seen ants piled so high in a mechanical meter that they slowed the disk, but it chugged right on. Have heard of one brand of electronic KWh meter with ant problems, but we haven’t run into it with the ones we use. Nor do the roaches, wasps, bugs, and spiders that crowd electrical equipment in cool weather knock it out. The only ones locally that do are ants in water pump relays, and they do so by preventing contact.

      Mice, rats, squirrels, bats, birds, and snakes do cause us problems because they’re big enough to short things out, but that’s another story.

      1. *laughing* One of the tech support stories Housemate shared was one another tech had relayed. Apparently there’s a dropdown list of reasons for tech call outs – including ‘banana / peanut butter sandwich shoved into computer by toddler’ ones. The tech was asking him where “Kitten inside computer” should go, since that wasn’t on the dropdown list.

        The kitten was newborn – quite blind, still in fuzzy jellybean stage – and was part of a litter the homeowner’s cat had just had. It had crawled in through one of the larger port holes in the back of the tower, and curled up near the video card. The owner happened to see the kitten through the transparent side panel, shut the computer off, and called tech support because he didn’t want to accidentally kill kitten or computer by opening the side of the case.

        Housemate advised the tech pick ‘food in pc via toddler’ and add an email advising what really happened. Kitten was duly rescued and returned to its’ dam, and the PC was fine. I think the ‘live animal inside case’ was added to the dropdown list later.

      2. Cats in car engines. Buddy of mine in high school worked at his dad’s service station and made a fair amount of money when the weather got cold because warm engine attracts cats…. until someone cranks the engine. Assuming the belts and hoses survive, someone still has to remove the baked on kitty after the car was driven to the gas station. It was not a sought after job.

  11. Yes. Long ago I wrote a story about fire ants infesting a collider and the scientists needed to send in ant robots to destroy them. Didn’t sell. Oh well. But your column is so very true.

Comments are closed.