Overthinking Apocalypse

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.

Yum. (Image from Wikipedia)

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[1]; 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.


[1] It’s still not out, by the way; I’m told that publication’s scheduled for July 2013.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday December 12 2012at 02:12 pm , filed under biotech, fiblet . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

20 Responses to “Overthinking Apocalypse”

  1. As always, Peter, I can’t make this shit up.

  2. Have I mentioned lately how much I admire your brain”?

  3. I think some form of bacteria is going to go a long way to solving energy needs. Geobacter is awesome: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002999.html

  4. Peter, I have long since come to the conclusion that a couple of major corporations — and no doubt an entire swarm of hungry little start-ups — regard hard-SF writers, especially in the fields of organotech/organo-nanotech to be the real creative geniuses behind their own best hopes for industry supremacy, or for even getting started in (and/or surviving in) their industry. What I mean is, they have the awesome lab space and the start-up capital but they got that by selling a three-year-old idea to some venture capitalist, who knows finance every which way but who doesn’t have the bio knowledge to understand that the 3-year-old idea was shown to be impractical 2.9 years ago… but if they’ve got the lab and the funding and the staff, if they can get an idea that’s “totally today”, they may not return bank on what they declared to get the loan, but if they return bank on something totally unrelated, they still returned bank. And who knows the present better than those who mine it for stories of the future? Or so they may think, and may very well be right.

    Thus, you think you’re trying to write a good story. Entire R&D departments think you’re designing their next product line, whether you know it or not. Honestly, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but far from entirely that.

    Take Bruce Sterling, for example. He had one sidebar in a novel to do with how Detroit was suppressing novel electrical-power storage and generation systems. (Clearly this was written before the marketing of the Prius or Volt.) He wrote about how someone was right at the edge of success with something described as “more or less, giant mitochondria”, but the Big Fossil Fuels industry came after his firm with a (metaphorical) wrecking bar made out of lawyers, guns, and money. The poor poor (fictional) man was represented as weeping on his lab table amid a room full of aquarium tanks each full of varying kinds of artificial semi-life, giant mitochondria or close analogues, about the size of a grapefruit but with 40,000 miles of surface area in their convoluted interiors. Look, if your goal in life is to get as many chloride ions as possible next to one piece of metal, and as many dissolved H+ as close as possible to another, what’s better than lots of living membrane with as many ATP-powered chlorine channel pumps as you can engineer into it? Just add enough sugar water and salt, and you can drive your Volt from Richmond VA to Redmond WA without starting up the gasoline engine. That would be worth big bucks. Very very big big bucks.

    Arthur C Clarke once wrote a hilarious short-story about how a scientist managed to get a cousin acquitted of a drunk-driving charge by inventing the Osmotic Bomb and alleging his cousin to be the inventor and the OB to be the reason his cousin smelled of spirits when accosted by the police. Yet rumors remain to this day that somewhere there are people working on third-generation variants of the Osmotic Bomb, and that they’re damn near close to making it not just work, but to be an element of strategic superiority in ultra-low-cost highly-effective munitions. So if you’re writing today about spontaneous human combustion due to woefully unrestricted and widespread adoption of practices and technologies best left to industry, you’re writing in a grand tradition… and probably industry is reading what you write, wondering if their secrets are so very proprietary after all. [1]

    Or maybe wondering if your fertile imagination has maybe come up with a new angle that they can leverage into profitability.

    Have you considered patenting any of your ideas? Because, if you describe them well enough in a copyrighted work, in many nations you can apply for patent as well, and the copyrighted work can be considered as the first publication of a novel concept.


    Ref: 1. There’s this incident I recall from middle school, had to do with a locker room, a cigarette lighter, and a guy whose family was rather notorious for making their own kielbasa and sauerkraut but not being particularly meticulous about fermentation times and recipes…

  5. Is it just me or does the image of trendy Starbuckers spontaneously combusting in their black turtlenecks leave a smile on your face. Yeah yeah. Funny once.

    It reminds me of one of my failed attempts at story writing. In this one house-pets genetically engineered to digest kitchen waste start reacting explosively to a new food coloring. (Think about it – perfect recycling and you don’t have to worry about forgetting the catfood again)
    Owners of course start abandoning their incendiary kitties and some start interbreeding with stray cats. For months afterwards the sad pop of exploding alley cats could be heard in the city.
    That was just to set the scene for the new trend. Augmented IQ lapdogs. Guaranteed non-flammable. And smart.
    Who then end up suffering from depression and committing mass suicide.

    My writing problem is to flesh the story out.

    PS> I love animals, really I do. I’m surrounded by a veritable zoo at home.

  6. But why engineer new bacteria for AD? The process is poorly understood biology-wise, but works well on a decent variety of feedstocks with a decent efficiency (no numbers at the top of my head though). Tweaking organisms for ethanol fermentation I can understand, but methanization?
    Also, closed loop AD? Only roughly half of the feedstock (per mass) is gasified, where’d the rest go in a closed loop?

    Though I must admit that the the premise is awesome.

    BTW, In germany, we a have (or had, last year) a discussion about botulism from AD plants: some farmers claim that botox bacteria thrive in the digesters, and when the digestate is spread on their fields as fertilizer they basically produce botox-contaminated fodder for their cattle.

    Oh yeah – first post – hi everyone!

  7. Hm. Last I had heard, the algae was supposed to be re-usable. We joked around the gaming table that it might, being bioengineered for extreme climes, eventually become self-aware, giving the defense industry something to do a la The Thing (the original with the intelligent Marhsall Dillon carrot) thereby defeating the advantages of not having to invade dino graveyards. Exploding yuppies works I suppose.

    Though I’m now wondering if there won’t be an onslaught of anti-Spain spam out of our tea party Congress and the likes of FOX and the Heritage Foundation. You know, freedom rice to go with freedom fries.

  8. @ Whoever: I’m still trying to figure out how some of the FOX-ish folk can on the one hand be for the rights of unborn children and for capital punishment; for frankenfood and for Faith, for tampering with nature and upholding the plans of their divinity. It seems that they mostly exist to concurrently hold mutually exclusive views, or at least to try to get the loyal viewers to subscribe to as many mutually-exclusive views as possible. Maybe they think that the more confused the audience is, the more likely they are to buy crap products for too much money.

    BTW: Spontaneously-combusting yuppies, sipping their lattees and blowing fire out of their arses? I know folks who’ve been praying for that for 20 years and more, quite possibly the fact that so far as we know this hasn’t happened, is the best proof that there is no deity that listens to prayers and rewards the wicked with divine justice. Too bad. That right there would be an awesome source of renewable energy. Just educate some frat boys/gals far beyond their intelligence and then give them jobs where they have unlimited resources and unlimited opportunities to make the immoral decisions, all the while stoking up an intestinal load of engineered micro-flora which would one day send them up in a puff of smoke. But the real question is, can it be made economical in a positive way. I’d think that as long as we make their families pay for their college educations and externalize that element from the loop, it might almost be cost-effective… simply because they won’t be around to make bad decisions with other peoples’ money and causing global financial ruin. Still, how many kilo-calories can you get out of a spontaneously-combusting yuppie? Buttered Cat Arrays might be a better investment.

  9. I’m unconcerned. Secondary metabolites are cheap to manufacture, and can provide contingencies that potentially provide survival advantages. A giant swollen sack of enzymes to pump out methane? No survival advantages, gets culled out in a few dozen generations.

    Sucks to be the first couple of guys exposed, while pathogens that literally blow up their hosts are bad at reproducing, it’s small comfort to those that do end up blowing up ;)

  10. pathogens that literally blow up their hosts are bad at reproducing

    Oh, I don’t know. Could be pretty good for aerosol transmission. Big explosion for spatter and a plume of flame to create thermal updraught…

  11. Sometimes I read these articles and I just swoon.
    Please bring on more the apocalypse was yesterday, and trans-humanity seems quaint by tomorrow’s standards.

  12. Oi.

    Someone who’s paid New Scientist to be allowed to comment there–please post a comment after their article, with an xref to Peter’s piece here.

  13. Hi

    I think there’s also a Greg Egan story in that TRSF issue, so I’m already salivating. The first TRSF issue was okay, but most stories didn’t actually deliver the goods for me. July 2013 feels like the deep future, though.

  14. Mr Non-Entity:
    @ Whoever: I’m still trying to figure out how some of the FOX-ish folk can on the one hand be for the rights of unborn children and for capital punishment; for frankenfood and for Faith, for tampering with nature and upholding the plans of their divinity. It seems that they mostly exist to concurrently hold mutually exclusive views, or at least to try to get the loyal viewers to subscribe to as many mutually-exclusive views as possible. Maybe they think that the more confused the audience is, the more likely they are to buy crap products for too much money.

    That’s one of many. Confuse, aggravate, and then point in the direction desired, whether it be the French, selling your gold, climate change science, or imagined secret Muslim socialists.

  15. @ Whoever, writing in-part: Confuse, aggravate, and then point in the direction desired, whether it be the French, selling your gold, climate change science, or imagined secret Muslim socialists.

    But… except perhaps for the socialist Muslims, all of those things are real! 8-/

    Seriously, I think I am on the edge of utterly distrusting all media with the exception of SF author blogs. They, at least, will tell you right up front that they deal with speculation and imagination, and they are there to entertain you, rather than (as a rule) trying to sell advertiser products or tell you how to vote. SF media productions? Hmm.

    The thing is, Peter’s right, and possibly more right about more things than he meant to say he was right about, if you’ll pardon my near take on Yogi Berra. (“Things are more the same now, than they have ever been before.”) Back when I first started reading SF in the ancient day when nobody yet quite knew that “Soylent Green is People”, I sometimes wondered what SF would be like, or what would concern and interest the authors and the fans, in the Year 2001, if we should all live so long. Indeed, what if we should survive Armageddon, or the Apocalypse? Would anyone want or need SF if they’d had their souls sucked out by giant pulsating commie brains from beyond the tesseract (L’engle, M. “A Wrinkle in Time”), or received the Real Truth from our Martian Stepchild (Heinlein, R. “Stranger in a Strange Land”)? Would the Martians, the last family of them seen in the Bradbury chronicles, tell stories speculating about life on their doomed sister planet, Earth? Or what would they care about SF, who lived after 1984?

    Armageddon, or the Apocalypse, comes and goes and keeps on coming, as we’ve got frankenfood, the bees all on the endangered-species list, the global population is about 50 times what it was when I was born (yes, really!) and we still haven’t got limitless fusion energy and no hopes for an interstellar drive to visit or move to the earth-like planets we’re almost certain are damn near everywhere in our galaxy. It’s been ten years at least since Dolly the Sheep made cloning public and quite possibly a few years ago someone muttered, as they pushed human FOXP2 genes into lab rodents, “ve haff vays of making mice talk”, and the lab rats aren’t just ripping pages out of books to line their nests, but to make their nests into libraries (hyperbole, okay?). Stuff keeps becoming commonplace that a lot of folks thought, from 30 years ago, would be the end of civilization if not of mankind and all earthly life.

    One of Peter’s main points, I think, is that he worked very hard to come up with some credible background for some hard-science SF that could be ripped from the headlines of next decade’s newspaper, only to find that there have been actual products on the market “for a while now”. (Thankfully no stories are circulating about spontaneous human combustion, but there might be some sort of cover-up ;) ) I seem to recall having seen a bit of discussion all over teh intarwebs about how the Singularity actually could be thought to begin when no SF writers could come up with any ideas that weren’t already in the pipeline, whether it’s in the development, deployment, or sales and advertising part of the pipeline.

    Are we really already in that part of the Singularity? Are we seriously getting to the point where all of the things we think should concern us, are increasingly irrelevant, but we don’t yet understand what should be our proper interests? How is it that one lunatic steals his mom’s weapons cache and mass-murders schoolchildren, and that drowns out the impending near-collapse of the US economy, impending use of chemical weapons of mass destruction in Syria and potentially the biggest UN action since the investment of Baghdad, and how do those things drown out recent statements about the polar ices melting at at least 5 times the previously predicted rate?

    Oh well, I don’t yet hear the zombies moaning at the door so it can’t be all that bad.

  16. Mr Non-Entity: Take Bruce Sterling, for example. He had one sidebar in a novel to do with how Detroit was suppressing novel electrical-power storage and generation systems. (Clearly this was written before the marketing of the Prius or Volt.)

    I seem to recall reading, back in tht sixties, about some high-school student who won a national science fair with a battery based on sugar. The story was titled something like “BP, Shell, and Esso all want this boy”. Apparently one of them got him; I never heard about the sugar battery ever again…

    martin: But why engineer new bacteria for AD?

    Um, what’s “AD” stand for? I’m not nearly so knowledgeable as some people assume…

    Winkhorst: I think there’s also a Greg Egan story in that TRSF issue, so I’m already salivating. The first TRSF issue was okay, but most stories didn’t actually deliver the goods for me. July 2013 feels like the deep future, though.

    ‘ve heard that complaint a few times — that TRSF presents first-rate authors writing meh stories &mash; and having done one myself now, I totally get that. They pay really well for the length, so everyone wants the gig; but they always seem to want the story in two weeks, so you don’t have enough time to get it right. Speaking strictly for my own efforts in that forum, I think I had a great idea that, as a story, didn’t turn out as well as it should have.

    On the other hand, the world is chock-full of people who are forced to deliver on short deadlines, and who know they could do better if given infinite time and infinite monkeys. So I’m keeping my privileged whininess relatively muted for the time being.

  17. Winkhorst:

    Oddly, the e-mail informing me of your comment quoted it as beginning: “When is that TR SF expected to be out? ” The comment that appears in the actual thread, however, does not contain this question.

    At any rate, the answer is July. July 2013.

  18. Peter Watts,
    Well, at least about the “sugar battery” it seems that it’s more like a sugar fuel cell developed by U.S. Army http://science.dodlive.mil/2010/08/26/the-bio-battery-converting-sugar-into-electrical-energy/
    The search for “sugar battery” took about 3 minutes.
    Your stories are a (rational) delight for me, your blog inspires many hours of thought exercise (at least for me), but you could let a little bit loose that “big corp capped new power source”, ’cause the big corp woud market this instead of capping it…

  19. @Razvan: Thanks for that! That’s pretty cool, but not quite what I was trying to point at…

    As for what I was trying to point at, I decided to search for “bruce sterling giant mitochondrion” and came up with this, “Military Mitochondrion Hacking”. Not quite sure what Mr Sterling might have been smoking when he made that brief post, but it’s still pretty fun.

    Speaking of Evil Transnational Uber-Corporations, there was that bit in the news a few years ago about “vast mineral wealth discovered, untapped in Afghanistan”. About two weeks later, the US policy branches pretty much stated that they were getting out of AFG as fast as they could without being impeached by a revolutionary military tribunal. Not quite sure how and why that happened, but it seems that Afghanistan is sitting on top of about half to 3/4rs of the world’s known reserves of lithium, essential for modern battery technology especially as applies to cars.

    That being said: it seems to me that while Big Corps would love to market sugar batteries, they probably wouldn’t want to do so in such a way as to yank the rug out from under (so to speak) their current standings in other markets. And keep in mind about the Army and MILSPEC research, they are perfectly happy to develop and deploy solutions that are excellent in terms of portability into military theaters, but aren’t exactly efficient in civilian life and are even less useful in long-term commercial applications. Think “natural gas”. Commercial users in North America love it, because it’s practically limitless and has almost no shipping costs as it comes through pipes buried in the ground. For the military, laying pipes in the ground to accept delivery from easily attacked central supplies, as they deploy and maneuver, that’s not what they need or want. Using up every last bag of sugar off of every last supply shelf in the world, so long as it’s portable for their needs, that’s what military want.

  20. Is now a good time to mention that I’m surprised they haven’t weaponized HELA yet?