continued from previous
He turned his attention to Olivia:
“Earth is a garden. Once you stop taking out the weeds, you realise that no species was actually ever invasive or aggressive. After you’ve ploughed 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 have 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 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, shall we go for the obligatory first-day-in-the-lab tour? There’s been quite a few changes from ten years ago, especially in our bioinformatics tools” she said, as she handed John a lab coat and a pair of brand new safety glasses, still in their factory plastic 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 of every species that has ever been sequenced. Over the past few months, the number of new mutation entries among marine microorganisms has risen exponentially. It happened just as the Veil begun to expand. We never thought this level of mutation rate was possible, I mean we are seeing a systemic effect across species of marine plankton, all mutating at the same time. It is almost like they are all responding to the same signal, and we have no idea what that signal might 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.”
“It all goes back to the garden example” John said. “a young seedling will behave differently if it has all the space in the garden, as opposed to a crowded canopy up above. It can “see” its surroundings by virtue of the different wavelengths they emit and will change its growth strategy accordingly. The different light wavelengths trigger different genes which upregulate or downregulate its growth hormones. This is just one example, there are so many other genes, most of them uncharacterized to date, or considered “silent”, “junk” DNA that supposedly does nothing. But let me tell you, nothing was created by evolution without a purpose. If you really want to uncover what is happening, I would look not at DNA mutations but the mRNA expression profile of all of these organisms now compared to before the Veil, especially the expression of previously silent and uncharacterized genes. There might be some genes that are only triggered under severe threat conditions, something similar to the Programmed Cell Death apoptotic pathway. Who knows, there may even be a gene that increases the probability of mutation under severe stress conditions, as much as this sounds like suicide. While under normal stable conditions this gene would be the equivalent of cancer, in a cataclysmic extinction scenario this gene would be priceless as it would allow adaptation to the new environment. My guess is that if such a gene exists, it would be pretty ancient, dating back to a primeval and unstable time of Earth’s ecosystems when it was most useful, and it would therefore be a common lineage to many organisms. This would also explain why we are seeing them all respond at the same time. The “apocalypse gene” may be a leftover from previous extinction events, and these events would certainly have reinforced and re-shaped such a gene. I believe Earth has a way of remembering previous extinctions. Evolution never forgets. It just adds to the code that is already there.”
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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