Science at the end of the world

Preface: I am not a fiction writer, but I have been having a very challenging time focusing on work and life as usual with the daily news as it is, and one way I’ve found to cope is to imagine what the ‘end’ could look like (sounds morbid, I know) and write about it. Below is one of my first stores about science at the end of the world. Comments/thoughts very welcome!

Story I. A parting gift

by Britt Koskella

Most were already dead and gone. The plants and animals on the endangered species list went – rather predictably – first, but the insects took everyone by surprise. Their sudden and precipitous loss from the planet were noticeable even by the youngest, who’d only graced the forest paths for a few short years. Even they missed the buzz, the occasional sting, and of course the joyous scene that occurs when flower and pollinator meet.

Most scientists had been busy documenting the change and trying against all odds to reverse the effects of the great extinction. The funding had dried out many years before, especially for areas relating to conservation, and most philanthropists had invested their money and trust in technology that might keep the Human population afloat for a few more generations. The BBC created momentary buzz with their coverage of a new bee-sized drone that could efficiently pollinate the drying almond orchards in under a week, and CNN had offered a glimmer of hope with their storyline about a new solar-powered ocean float the size of Virginia that could redirect ocean currents to save a small pocket of marine life in Baja. But mostly the news was sobering.

Some journalists pointed to studies from the mid 2000s predicting exactly these effects, and shook their fists in anger at the politicians and lobbyists who blatantly and unapologetically ignored the pleas. Others blamed the scientific community for their lack of prowess and engagement with the public. But most argued that despite the writing on the wall, there was nothing that could have been done. And now, the focus was simply on making the end as palatable as possible.

There was a knock on the door of the basement lab, which was firmly bolted from the inside as had been common practice since the late 2080s. For this particular lab, more than most, the paranoia was in large part justified. Ever since a local Nigerian news outlet had plastered the face of the scientist under a headline purporting a sinister plot to genetically engineering bacteria to replace mankind, she and her team had had to change locations nearly monthly. This time, however, there was no cause for alarm. It was her long-term collaborator arriving with yet another set of genomic samples, this time from a collection of Peruvian insects.

After they had separated each sample – some representing the final remnants of biological material from a species that once graced postage stamps – into multiple freezer stocks, the two put aside one set for their next round of experiments. The idea of resurrecting the now extinct flora and fauna from DNA had come and gone years earlier, as the initial joy of seeing newly released species in their previous habitats was quickly and inevitably followed by public mourning as the last was once again laid bare by an uninhabitable climate and failed ecosystem. The focus now was only on seeding hope despite all odds.

About 15 years prior, Dr. Iruke had been woken in the middle of the night by her 16 month old. Like every night, she rocked him back and forth wishing with all she had that she could provide him with a future. But, like most other nights, she could only cry along with him. Unlike most other nights, however, the full inevitability of human extinction within her generation came fully into view. She knew, for the first time, that her science had been focused on the wrong problem. We could not be saved. The question was simply whether we could offer any parting gift to the planet as we made our exit.

Despite her early start the previous morning, Dr. Iruke lay wide awake. The full enormity of the task ahead lay with her. The next day, after the kids were dropped off at the local daycare – where caregivers still tried their best to live life as they had before and provide the children, at least, with some semblance of normality and joy – she set to work. The first, and likely most onerous task, would be finding funding. At least that part of science had stayed constant through the years. However, in light of the new predictions, it was likely to be easier to part the wealthy with their stockpiles of cash – as there remained little in which to invest.

She called a virtual lunch meeting with a few of her closest and most trusted colleagues from around the globe. After brief introductions, she made her pitch. At first there was silence. Dr. Steinberg from New York was the first to chime in. Can it be done? This was followed quickly by Dr. Fernandez from Mexico, who simply asked: how many bacterial strains would we need? After four hours of heated and excited discussion, the first of many to come, the team laid out a plan to raise funds from their existing network. The investment would need to be large, but perhaps more importantly, kept quiet.

The meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Vanguard was held in their penthouse suite. The suite had wall murals of African safaris from their great-great grandparents and seemed full of reminiscent memorabilia. It was hard to tell whether this was a house of nostalgia for a nature that once was, or a house of denial. Either way, it was easy enough to start the conversation that needed to be had. As they shook hands on the way out, there was a moment of quiet sadness. An acknowledgement among optimists that this may just work, but that neither they nor any of their descendants would ever live to find out.

With funding in place, the team set out to run their calculations. Just how many base pairs of genetic code would they need to represent all the genes on earth? It was a daunting number, especially in light of the unknown but fixed time remaining to complete the project. They would certainly need help. Luckily for the team, the project struck a chord with many across the research network, a network that was rapidly growing. In retrospect, this should have been less of a surprise than it was. After all, Dr. Iruke was offering her fellow scientists an opportunity – the only opportunity left on earth – to shape the future of the doomed planet.

The idea was elegant and simple. Bacteria and Archaea (the lesser known but equally diverse members of the prokaryotic tree of life) were capable of living in all habitats on earth, including many extreme environments like acid mines and thermal vents. These small cells also had an extraordinary skill: many of them could readily take up and express genes from other species, even plants and animals. Their genomes were flexible enough that they could encode and retain genetic code that was not their own, and this flexibility had been key to their use over the last 50 years as enormous computer memory systems. It had been long hypothesized, and proven decades before, that all life on earth had come from evolution of these unicellular organisms, and that their ability to swap genes and dramatically change their shape and function from one generation to the next was critical to their subsequent evolution.

With this information in place, lying in bed that night a few weeks before, Dr. Iruke had arrived at the idea that when we left the earth, we could leave it not just with the microorganisms that would continue to thrive, but with trillions upon trillions of cells carrying genes from the lost eukaryotic world.

The experiments ran for seven years across 342 laboratories. Project oversight involved a complex logistical coordination of freezer stocks of genetically engineered strains all placed in the correct locations such that the organisms would only be released over the course of the last few weeks of human existence. To make the project a success, the organisms had to be carefully matched to the environment in which they’d be most likely to thrive after release, and with enough redundancy that each environment would contain hundreds of species carrying complementary suites of genes. In short, the team had to ensure that all of the genetic variation that evolution had randomly generated by mutation and ruthlessly shaped by natural selection over the billions of previous years on earth would remain ‘alive’ to fuel future evolution and reshape biodiversity once, and if, the earth had recovered.

The pitfalls were clear: the vast majority of genes do not function in isolation, but rather rely on expression of many other genes encoded in the same genome. As plant and animal genomes are typically 10-1000 times longer than the average bacterial genome, the trick to success was two-fold. First, the researchers had to ensure that all complementary genes were encoded within microbial cells that were likely to co-exist within a particular habitat- allowing them to once again come together, albeit likely in combinations and with outcomes of which the researchers could only dream. Second, the researchers had to ensure that the bacteria would keep these prized genetic jewels despite no advantage to the cell itself. The first was a question of time, effort, and freezer space. The latter stalled the project for nearly a year.

It was a new member of the team, Russel, who eventually came upon the solution. He had started his PhD in Canada right at the start of the great insect decline. He never finished his graduate work, but when he heard from his advisor about Dr. Iruke’s group and their mission, he spent months pouring over the literature to bring himself up to speed before approaching her for a position. Although his bench skills left something to be desired, she saw in him the fire and creativity needed to bring such a project to completion, and offered him a coveted position in her own group.

After months of reading and experimental dead ends, Russell one day tried an experiment that he imagined far too simple to ever succeed. He had read about an experiment whereby a researcher had managed to keep a ‘deleterious’ section of DNA (one that reduced the lifespan of the bacteria significantly and should have been rapidly purged from the population by selection) stably transmitting from generation to generation. By permanently linking the new gene to a toxin, on one side, that gave that bacterium a great advantage in competition with other bacteria, and an anti-toxin on the other side, he could ensure that only bacteria that carried the toxin and anti-toxin could survive, and any genes found in between were highly likely to be retained as well. After trying every manipulation he could think of, and receiving invaluable feedback on future-proofing of his design from others on the team, he finally came across something that worked. The newly synthesized genetic material was rapidly disseminated to all of the partner laboratories, and with this new innovation, the project moved full speed ahead.

In the eighth year of the project, the army of freezers across the globe were stocked with bacterial strains that contained the genetic material to encode all existing and recently existing life on earth. The researchers had spent months debating whether or not to include the genomes of prehistoric dinosaurs, some of which had been assembled based on ancient remains trapped in amber, but in the end decided that it was impractical to include them. There was, they argued, enough of a lottery system as it was, the likelihood that any future life would resemble that of the past was slim to none, and adding more complexity by combing genes that had never coexisted seemed gratuitous at best.

As global food supplies dwindled, and temperatures continued to soar, the end was in sight. Dr. Iruke called an emergency meeting of the research network, knowing that communications would soon cease to be possible. They agreed, over the course of a somber and solemn conversation, on a plan for growing the frozen stocks of bacteria to large quantities at each location and on a global release date three weeks in the future. No food had been successfully grown on earth for over a year, and the infrastructure on which the population depended for heating and cooling in the virtually uninhabitable global climate was rapidly breaking down. There were tears, but also outpourings of gratitude to one another for the scientific community they had built. For many, the project represented a desperately needed distraction from the inevitable. With each new bacterial or archaeal line they created, they packaged a small gift to future organisms on earth. Gifts capable of recreating the beauty of a feather or intricacy of an eye. Gifts that hold potential to refashion the complexity and wonder of a brain capable of free thought, and the amazing engineering of an insect that can hover in place or seed that can blossom into 50 foot redwood tree.

They all understood the unpredictability of evolution, and the unlikelihood of anything human-like ever roaming earth again, but couldn’t help but smile as they imagined what the powerful force of evolution might once again create. The earth would never be the same, and this was entirely the fault of the humans that had populated it, but it would go on, and thanks to a moment of sleeplessness of a small child and a moment of clarity of his mother, the human genome at least would continue to exist, alongside the genomes of the plants and animals it once relied upon, ran from, and gazed at.

As Dr. Iruke closed her eyes that last night, she wept with the rest of the remaining population, but as she kissed her son goodbye, she also smiled at the thought of his genes – for it was, in the end, his genome the team had decided to preserve as representative of all humans – living on. What would the future hold? Perhaps his dark chocolate skin pigment, or his blue eyes on the body of another being? Perhaps an insect with his stubborn determination, or fish-like creature with his blood cells running through it? One way or another, the future would move on without her – without any of them – and it would do so as seamlessly and blindly as it had before they had ever stepped foot on earth.