There was more, of course. Prof. Piotr Dembowski of the University of Maryland, talking about how difficult it had been to crack the GRM. Someone else from Simon Fraser, reporting that something like Firebrand (“it’s always hard to tell when dealing with encrypted genes”) was showing up in some microbe — Bacteroides thetasomethingorother — that lived exclusively in the human gut (“Small mercies, actually. If it was viable in, say, E. coli, everything from puppies to pigeons would be pooping fire and brimstone by now, heh heh.”) The obligatory hastily-called press conference at which a GreenHex spokesman attested to the absurdity of the latest allegations (“These algae were designed for the warm, wet, methane-rich conditions of our anaerobic reactors, not the human digestive system!”), and that even if Firebrand had got out it couldn’t possibly have persisted in the wild for anywhere near the year-and-a-half since GreenHex had phased out their lagoon operations and gone 100% closed-loop. Which was briefly reassuring, until some statistician from the University of fucking Buzzkill showed up to witter on about the myth of the perfect failsafe, and how any industry scaling up fast enough to replace fossil fuels in less than two decades would probably be dealing with a couple dozen accidents a day even if it hadn’t built its entire operation on a product that self-replicated.
Some of you may remember a fiblet I posted a few months back, a very rough first-cut excerpt of a story I was writing for MIT Technology Review; something about people spontaneously combusting as an unfortunate side-effect of an biofuel industry that, in the face of catastrophic climate change, might have been rushed to mass production a wee bit before all the bugs had been worked out. I really had to work on the details for that one. It was easy enough to imagine engineered cyanobacteria escaping from a leaky bioreactor somewhere; lateral transfer would suffice to explain how plasmids built for the production of biofuel might get into the Spirulina that tinted Starbuck’s new heath-conscious “Shamrock Smoothies”. But how to limit the incendiary results exclusively to humans? Once that code got loose, why wouldn’t everything with a GI tract be squirting fire out its ass? (In hindsight, that might have been a better story; a world in which any random critter might burst into flames without warning would be a nicely hyperbolic metaphor for global warming. But something like that would also be impossible to cover up, and the focus of “Firebrand” involved the day-to-day bureaucracy of explaining away human sponcoms as isolated acts of terrorism, or an unfortunate side-effect of drinking unregulated alcoholic beverages imported from Poland.)
I googled my fingers off, trying to find some kind of microbe that lived in the human gut and nowhere else. I found a couple of references attesting to the fact that lateral transmission between bacteria and cyanobacters wasn’t completely off the wall. I figured that random wind-borne transmission could get the ball rolling in terms of moving the source code from A to B. It was a bit of a stretch, but it held together well enough for the purposes of a four thousand word story.
Only now I can read all about the burgeoning bioenergy field in the current issue of New Scientist (for the next eight days at least, at which point the article disappears behind a paywall). ”Biofuel that’s better than carbon neutral” describes a number of promising young start-ups based on the use of engineered cyanobacteria, and tells me that at least one of them — Bio Fuel Systems Inc., out of Spain — squeezes “blue petroleum” from its colonies and then
“sells its high-value algal by-products as nutritional supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids.”
All that arcane research and rationalization. All those steps to justify the transmission of engineered algal genes from reactor to rectum. All for naught.
The industry is already feeding the stuff to us directly.
Apocalypse. It’s so much easier in the real world.
 It’s still not out, by the way; I’m told that publication’s scheduled for July 2013.