Attention, science fiction writers: If you’re having writer’s block, I’ve got a plot for you, and all I ask is that you mention me with a nice statement about my charm and good looks on your acknowledgements page. The inspiration comes, of course, from scientific research. Two studies provide for a pair of intertwined plotlines, dripping with the kind of bioethical issues that can easily lead to good fight scenes.
Maria A. Blasco and Bruno M. Bernardes de Jesus at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center have found a way to extend the lifespan of mice in a way that could be applied to humans. It’s a gene therapy that targets the telomeres, the end caps of chromosomes that deteriorate with age. The therapy repairs or slows down damage to the telomeres, without causing an increase in the rate of cancer. Mice that received the therapy had life spans an average of 24 percent longer than mice that did not. For human beings, such an impact would bring average life expectancy up into the nineties.
Byung Yang Lee, Seung-Wuk Lee, and Ramamoorthy Ramesh of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories have found a virus that you actually want your computer to have – because it can be used to generate electricity. The virus is harmless to humans. It infects bacteria only. The virus has a tubular shape that causes it to tend to line up in orderly rows when assembled in large numbers. The virus also happens to be constructed in such a way that makes it piezoelectric, meaning that it can generate carry an electric charge in response to the application of physical force.
The Science Fiction Plot:
Imagine a world in which people are expected to live to be a hundred years old, thanks to a gene therapy that protects their telomeres, and which is free of the pollution now associated with the generation of electricity, thanks to the use of piezoelectric squares packed with electrically conductive viruses that are harmful to humans, linked up into gigantic networks of sidewalks and roads that stretch across entire continents.
Problems arise, however, when the virus becomes biologically adaptive, infecting a bacteria that grows along the roadways and sidewalks, and begins to evolve to exploit its new interconnectedness… into a new form of life that “thinks” using the roadways as nerves and has, as its physical body, the entire system of objects that are powered by the electricity generated by those roadways. So, people’s toasters, transportation and telephones begin behaving in frighteningly unusual ways.
At the same time, the human population of the Earth is undergoing a new boom. Shortened telomeres, it turns out, lead to prolonged reproductive ability as well as prolonged life span, and families of five children have become the worldwide average. Given that those children all have 100-year life spans, they require a lot more food, which requires the use of more land and water for agriculture, and now, in the third generation after the discovery of the telomere therapy, things are getting very tight on Planet Earth.
Two heroes find two very different ways of solving these problems, and assemble what forces they can to apply their ideas, in contradiction, and then in open conflict, with each other. Soon, each hero begins to question what he/she is really fighting for, because the survival of the human species is on the line, but protecting it may bring about further consequences…