continued from previous
He turned his attention to Olivia:
“Earth is a garden. Once you stop killing the weeds and allow everything to grow, you realize that no species was actually ever invasive or aggressive. They were all meant to be with each other. When you plough the garden, initially there is a little competition, a rush to occupy space: to be the first to establish oneself into that well-mixed, fresh, empty soil. But then, it gets crowded. And everybody learns to live with each other. They all decide to back off. All the different species that we call weeds. Then the insects move in, each one preferring a different flower to lay their larvae into. Then you have an ecosystem. Then the human bulldozer arrives.”
“The ocean is beginning to regress into that freshly ploughed garden. We don’t even know how many species may have gone extinct in the last few months. But the fact that the jellyfish population has exploded at this level means that there is suddenly a huge open space in the garden. The Veil has killed almost everything underneath it.”
A mournful pause took hold for a second as John and Olivia stood silent, the sound of the percolators and incubation machines humming in the background.
“So are we the gardeners then?” – Olivia knew that she was asking a rhetorical question. She felt like she was back in John’s Extinction Ecology class ten years ago.
“Well, we certainly think we are” said John, holding on to the benchtop as he leaned in to take another peek at the beautiful blue and purple jellyfish.
“But what WE think doesn’t matter really. Thought itself is selfish. It is subjective, it is species-specific. The EoT is impartial: it distributes resources fairly among all the species. However selfish a certain species might become as it strives to dominate, the EoT will always find ways to cut it down to size and limit its share of space in the garden.”
Olivia smiled in agreement, as she reached out for her coffee.
“So, will you join me for your obligatory first-day-in-the-lab tour? There have been quite a few changes in here from ten years ago, especially in our bioinformatics platform” she said, as she handed John a lab coat and a pair of brand-new safety glasses, still in their plastic factory packaging.
“All of our PCR machines and DNA sequencers have a direct link to BioNET – the world’s biggest and most regularly updated DNA database, which contains every species that has ever been sequenced. Over the past few months, the number of new mutation entries reported from across the world on marine microorganisms has risen exponentially. It happened just as the Veil began to spread. We never thought this level of mutation rate was possible. We are seeing a sustained, systemic effect across hundreds of species of marine plankton, all mutating at the same time. It is almost like they are all responding to some kind of signal, and we have no idea what that signal could be.”
“We always thought that extinction events were simply a biodiversity downward spiral across all species categories, but we may need to revise our theories. Something is triggering the same exact response across a diverse array of very different species”, Olivia continued.
“It all goes back to the garden example” John said. “A young seedling will behave differently if it has all the space in the world, as opposed to being blocked by a thick canopy up above. It can almost “see” its surroundings by virtue of the different light wavelengths it detects and will change its growth strategy accordingly. The different light frequencies trigger different genes which upregulate or downregulate the seedling’s growth hormones. This is just one example, but I believe that there are so many other similar genes that respond to external stimuli, sometimes waiting for hundreds, who knows maybe thousands of years for that one, rare signal to wake them up. Some of the sequences have been paved over by evolution, their unused genetic code degenerating and eventually becoming unreadable. But others are simply asleep, uncharacterized, mislabeled as “junk” DNA that supposedly does nothing.”
He looked inside a benchtop safety disposal bin full of used-up DNA extraction microtubes. He put his hand in and picked up one tube, holding it up to the light, almost as if presenting a piece of evidence in court.
“I don’t believe in junk DNA” he said, holding up the tube and looking at Olivia straight in the eye. A transparent film of dried-up extract was almost discernible in the inner walls, firmly clinging to the plastic. He held on to it like a prop, as he continued:
“Nothing was created by evolution without a purpose. Some of these undiscovered genes are so important in the regulation of other downstream transcriptional cascades, that they are difficult to see, just because their effect is so huge. They are literally the elephants in the room. You can only see them when you step out of the room.”
He pointed to the bioNET platform:
“If you really want to uncover what is happening, look not only at DNA mutations, but at the mRNA expression profiles of all these organisms now, compared to before the Veil – especially the expression of previously silent and uncharacterized genes. It is very likely that genes exist which are only triggered under severe threat conditions, such as an extinction event. They may be linked to the Programmed Cell Death apoptotic pathway that most species possess. But they may also be linked to what we are witnessing right now with the birth of all of these new variants. A gene that increases the probability of mutation under severe stress conditions, as much as it sounds like suicide, has its benefits. While under stable conditions this gene would be the equivalent of cancer, in a cataclysmic extinction event this gene would be priceless, as it would allow adaptation to the new environment. The few lucky individuals that inherit a beneficial mutation would secure the survival of the species.”
He finished with his freshly conceived theory:
“Extinction events are not just accelerated leaps in natural selection. I believe that they trigger genetic pathways that can bring about evolutionary quantum jumps.”
He glanced at the microtube once more before throwing it back in the bin in a mini slam-dunk move. Olivia followed his mannerisms carefully, as they all came back to her, from many years ago. He finished with a new hypothesis:
“My guess is that, if such a gene existed, it would be pretty ancient – possibly dating back to a primeval and unstable time in Earth’s ecosystems, when it would have been most useful in an environment of frequent extinction events. If indeed it is that ancient, it would therefore be a common lineage to many organisms, which would also explain why we are seeing all these marine organisms respond all at the same time. They all have a version of the same ancient sequence in their DNA. They all have this panic button”
“The “apocalypse gene”, if I may call it that, may be a leftover from previous extinction events, and these events would certainly have reinforced and re-shaped such a gene. Our DNA code has a way of remembering previous extinctions. These are events that traumatized us. Evolution never forgets, and rarely deletes. Most times it just adds to the existing code that is already there.”
to read from the beginning, go here
(from the upcoming novel A New Earth) – PRE-ORDER NOW:
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books