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.