A reader going by the handle Sylvain linked me to a cool paper a few days back; it’s something I would have killed to have had back when writing Blindsight. Are you ready for this?

A tick that turns its victims into vegetarians.

Photo credit: CDC

If this eats you…

Look to Commins et al for the peer-reviewed details; the tl;dr version is that a bite from Amblyomma americanum provokes a delayed allergic response to a certain  monosaccharide found only in red meat. Meaning that if one of these little fuckers bites you, nothing happens for a month or two. Then you go into anaphylactic shock the next time you bite a hamburger.

Of course, it’s not that simple or that unambiguous (we are talking tl;dr, after all). There are nuances— one of which is, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose isn’t found in avian flesh, so bird meat is still okay. Another is, it’s not found in primate flesh either— which means that if you’ve really got a taste for red meat, you don’t have to give it up just because some nasty bloodsucker bit you. You can always resort to cannibalism. And if eating within your exact species is problematic, you can still get away with it so long as you keep it in the Family.

...don't eat this.

…don’t eat this.

You can see why Sylvain read this and thought of me; set that alpha-gal allergy back fifty thousand years, give it a genetic component, and voilà: a far more elegant rationale for the obligate cannibalism of vampires than I ever managed with my overwrought handwaving about gamma-protocadherin (which has, as some of you know, painted me into a bit of a retconny corner). Too late for that now.

But, thought I, what a great secret weapon for PETA to fall back on when they get tired of waiting for vat-grown meat to pass the smell test, when they finally admit that all the Paul McCartney documentaries in the world aren’t ever going to dent rib-consumption in the heartland. All you have to do is seed ticks— or hell, tweak bedbugs; they’re way more ubiquitous in urban environments, and most governments don’t even regard them as a health hazard because they don’t vector human diseases. Tweak bedbugs for alpha-gallergy induction, set them loose throughout the Bedrooms of the Bourgeoisie, wait for all of Texas to topple facedown into their rib-eyes. Now there’s a great idea for a story.

In fact, it’s such a great idea for a story that some upstart named Leigh Cowart already beat me to the punch, combining a throwaway thriller scenario with a kickass nonfiction account of the background biology (warning: don’t know if you’ll be able to get through to that last link. It seems to be on some kind of time lock). Even worse, she’s a really good writer with actual veterinary credentials; she did a better job than I could have.

So, late to the party (Commins et al came out two years ago), all that’s left for me is to spread the word. And to add perhaps one new element to the story potential arising from this discovery, one small fictive twist that I don’t think anyone else has yet beat me to: perhaps PETA’s solution, even if enacted, wouldn’t be so final after all. Maybe you don’t have to go back to the Pleistocene to envision tough decisions being made in the name of keeping red meat on the table. Maybe there are places where, even today, proscriptions against cannibalism might be— loosened a bit— in the name of maintaining an old and honorable tradition. And those ecovegan nutbars are nothing more than tewwowists anyway, pure and simple; we can’t let them win, no matter what the cost.

There’s a reason they call it the Lone Star tick.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 at 8:34 am and is filed under biology, blindsight, scilitics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

12 Responses to “Tick…tick…tick…”

  1. Steve Halter

    It appears that you would also become allergic to cat dander. So, cannibals with a deathly fear of cats.
    It also totally explains the whole Texas Chainsaw Massacre group.

  2. AR

    Ribs would just start coming with a complementary side of autoinjector. There would be a standing contest to clean your plate before needing to use it. If you win, the meal is on the house.

  3. Nestor


    Here’s another unlock of the same article which will be open for 48 hours from this point.

  4. Nestor


    And here’s another Leigh Cowart article on Chagas


    One about Cicadas awakening in a lovecraftian vein


    How to test for horsemeat





    I have 14 more unlocks this month so if anyone wants to read anything from nsfwcorp I’ll be happy to provide. Now I gotta go for my daily run.

  5. Mr Non-Entity

    OMFG! I’ve been having this little… bug problem. Whether or not the bugs are real is the subject of considerable debate amongst various relatives angling for advantage during probate, but, whatever.

    This may seem digressive, but since the little bastards really dug in, and since scabies-specific treatments don’t work very well but flooding the environs with insecticides specific for ticks does seem to be having an effect, I am thinking that I’ve actually got a problem with ticks (nymphs, mostly), specifically deer ticks.

    Well, we’re talking about a rather different tick than the one which confers an allergy to non-primate meat, but the funny thing is… since I have been having this ongoing problem, I do have almost no interest in eating my usual helping of steaks. I haven’t eaten one since April and few burgers; most of my protein is coming from such things as peanut-butter & jelly sandwiches and tuna-salad.

    Could other ticks be somewhat capable of making people into vegetarians? Because quite worrisomely, some PETA types live nearby who also happen to work in the genetic engineering field, and it would seem that when “ObamaCare” got enacted, a lot of the safeguards we used to have on human experimentation somehow got lost… I should probably walk the block and ask the outdoorsy neighbors if they’ve got this sudden aversion to meat. But maybe I should ask cautiously just in case their sudden aversion to beef is accompanied by an emerging taste for yours-truly.

    But back to reality:

    @Peter Watts: about that “smell test” on vat-grown meat? Perhaps you’ve read Dining Out At McDracula’s? Reference to the present topic, no, cultured beef tissue probably still has “alpha gal” included, but no doubt beef isn’t the only thing that could be vat-grown. “Tastes like chicken” could soon become even more common.

    @Nestor: Wow, thanks!

  6. Craig McGill

    Never mind PETA, I could see people taking this to try and diet.

  7. Biff

    If stuff that would fit nice into Blindsight keep coming up, wouldn’t it be possible to reboot the novel when enough new data has accumulated to justify it?

  8. Nestor

    Well, I’m no biologist but you could have the tick induced vegetarian allergy become endemic, then a population split into vampires who prey on the vegetarian masses, then the trait becomes fixed by whatever protocadherin deficiency or what have you so the behaviour of the subspecies is fixed even removing the tick induced allergies. IIRC the vampires were barely split from the parent species.

    Actually I remember thinking that the most successful strategy for the vampires would be to mate with humans and use their children as food source every generational awakening. Think Dracula with droit de seigneur. Gotta be easier than hunting down Valerie and convicing her to go on a date…

  9. Whoever

    Funny, ran across this a couple of days ago. Last paragraph included that little monster.


    Wonder if you add in sprue what happens? No wheat, no meat.

  10. Bahumat

    Tsk, tsk, I sent you a link on that June 21st and 22nd, 2012. 😀 And put the bedbugs idea uh, bug in your ear. Nice to see the peer review is standing up strong for this one.

    Another fun take on this might be exploring this tick parasitizing other predatory animals instead of humans, seeing wild animals becoming obligate primate predators.

  11. Peter Watts

    If stuff that would fit nice into Blindsight keep coming up, wouldn’t it be possible to reboot the novel when enough new data has accumulated to justify it?

    I only know of one case when that happened; David Gerrold rewrote “When HARLIE Was One”, once it became apparent that all his computer science was wrong. (Rereleased it as “Release 2.0”).

    Most of the time, though, I think it’s best to leave each novel as an artefact of its time. If new findings keep coming down the pike, well, you write a new novel…

  12. Peter Watts

    Bahumat: Another fun take on this might be exploring this tick parasitizing other predatory animals instead of humans, seeing wild animals becoming obligate primate predators.

    Oooh. Now there’s an idea…