mrcreek: beetle in flight (pic#265196)
[personal profile] mrcreek
Apparently I have written a postscript describing the science behind all of my stories except The Pioneer (not counting Polymer Monopoly, which I am still turning into a full-length piece). So, here are some reflections on Shebbin's adventures. Does the plot in fact revolve around a biotechnological concept that could save the world? Read on.

I speak, of course, of the fusion enzyme. To the best of our knowledge, such a molecule has never evolved, although it's certainly possible that we might overlook it if were discreetly providing energy to, say, some obscure deep-sea worm. Given that it's fictional, the question is whether it could ever evolve, or, perhaps more practically, whether it could be engineered. Enzymes are remarkably versatile and can catalyze a huge number of chemical reactions. This often involves nothing more than putting two other molecules in very close contact. If that contact could be close enough, suddenly the reaction would not be chemical but nuclear. It that sense, the biofusion challenge is merely quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from what enzymes can already do. However, atomic nuclei are extremely small even compared to protein molecules, and they would have to get extremely close, and they resist mutual proximity with extreme force. Compared to a proton, an enzyme is big, clumsy, floppy, porous, and weak. It would be like trying to thread a needle with a leaf rake, while the needle and thread were statically charged to repel each other. Still, it is possible to imagine a robotic arm built out of a leaf rake that could thread a needle. If you could build a protein compartment from which nuclei could not escape, and you could squeeze it tightly enough, locking it like a ratchet after each squeeze, nuclear fusion could theoretically occur. The next big question would be how to contain the energy. In the photosynthetic system, capturing light energy with chlorophyll is the relatively simple part; turning that energy into usable carbohydrates involves a much more complex system of molecular machinery. Presumably the same would be true for biofusion. So, the task would be difficult and a long shot, but the payoff would be enormous. Such a technology would instantly solve our energy problems, and by extension, many of our economic, environmental, and military problems. An enzyme could be replicated indefinitely for a very low cost if it were inserted into a transgenic bacterium. Cold fusion has been a pipe dream for many years, but some scientists still seriously pursue it. Molecular biology could be the key to its success. There is no theoretical reason why waterfowl or molybdenum would be particularly helpful in this field; I just liked the image of a bunch of plump ducks and needed a rare-sounding metal that is sometimes used by enzymes.

Of course, the fusion ducks are not the only cool bit of speculative biology. Take the falcon wasp. You may have thought I made up to idea of opposing neurotoxins, but in fact that's a pretty accurate description of the biochemical functions of batrachotoxin (found in poison dart frogs) and tetrodotoxin (found in pufferfish and other venomous critters). You could theoretically swallow a poison dart frog and chase it with a pufferfish and be okay, but I definitely do not recommend this.

Although I didn't want to get into a major exploration of sexuality issues, I thought it would be interesting to have Shebbin experience some angst about her genderlessness. I toyed with the idea of making her completely physically asexual, such that her female gender was an entirely arbitrary decision by her parents, but I decided that wasn't very biologically plausible. I suppose the buccaneer bioengineers could do whatever they want, but the easiest thing to do would be to keep expressing all genes normally, even sex genes, in an asexual organism. In nature, most asexual organisms that are recently descended from sexual ancestors (for example, certain lizards) are still morphologically female.

We still don't exactly know what makes our brains more intelligent than those of other mammals, but a major part of it is probably due to differences in the expression of genes that we all share. So, artificially upregulating these genes could boost the intelligence of other species. Linguistic ability probably does not follow directly from enhanced intelligence, but is likely due to more specialized features of our brains that are specifically suited for language and grammar. Still, mimicking those features in the brains of other mammals might be possible. That still wouldn't give the beast vocal chords, but there might be a work-around, such as a trunk. Tapirs are underappreciated, and their trunks make them one of the most likely ungulates to develop vocalizations and the ability to manipulate objects on par with humans. That's essentially why I made Froomba a tapir. The flehmen position, by the way, is a typical response made by tapirs and various other mammals. You're probably most familiar with the face a horse makes by curling its upper lip. It facilitates smelling.

Tissue and organ transplants do require immunosuppression, and Muge's worms are one possible solution. In nature, there are multiple instances in which a host houses a smaller animal that eats its parasites. Think about oxpecker birds riding around on rhinos, or cleaner wrasse fish scrubbing the mouths of larger fishes. There are tiny species of roundworms that eat bacteria, and lots of worms that live inside animals, so it's not too much of a stretch to construct a nematode immune system.

Many science fiction stories take place on planets that are uncannily Earthlike (similar temperature and gravity, breathable atmosphere, lots of solid ground, water, minimal radiation, etc.). I confess myself guilty of this trope as well. In this case, I assume this planet was chosen from a large number of uninhabited planets as the best possible environment for the spore ecosystem. The oxygen in the air was probably not originally there, but was generated by the fungal photosynthesizers before Yorel and Labinu made their settlement. I did make the days longer than Earth days, just because I thought the planet couldn't be identical to Earth in every respect. Another trope along these lines is that independent colonizations of a planet take place within walking distance of each other. Once again, I'm guilty, but the plot would hardly have worked otherwise.

That's about it. As always, let me know if you have any questions, comments, or requests for future stories. A sequel to the Pioneer is a definite possibility, but I haven't started to write it yet.
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