FOR YOUR INFORMATION
by Claude Needham, Ph.D
I am sure that as a science fiction reader it has not escaped your attention that changing the perspective (point of view) of ordinary events can draw forth wonderfully bizarre and alien landscapes -- right at home so to speak. Anyone out there have the time and talent to write a story about a mute seamstress that communicates her unrequited love to a blind quality control inspector through Braille like bumps in her stitches. You know . . . sew to speak.
I remember the horror and alien quality captured in a story of an astronaut forced into a fetal relationship with an alien mothership. Food and a soporific drug were pumped into the astronaut's bloodstream nourishing him as well as giving him a complete sense of safety and well-being -- just so long as he was attached umbilical-like to the alien ship. An ordinary event for every fetus. Somehow the endless dependence was horrific and disturbing. Strange. All the ship wanted was to love and to be loved; she was willing to give complete sexual/sensual/material satisfaction in return. How could this be a horror story?
Apart from the unique perspective supplied by the writer's use of an astronaut and alien space craft rather than a fetus and mother's womb the scenario is biologically a perfectly ordinary event. It is exactly the situation that a fetus finds his or her pre-postpartum self in. By using a writer's license, making the fetus adult and conscious, the author created a memorable story line. In case you were wondering and were about to email with the question, no I don't remember the name of the writer. If you do, my InterNet address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Consider another storyline: young male just entering the age of consent, "agrees" to allow an alien spider-like creature to slip a tubular organ into his abdominal cavity impregnating him with live eggs. These injected eggs grow inside him, swelling and squirming within his abdominal cavity. During the story, the spider-like creature watches over the young male protecting him and the embryonic spiders within. At the end of the story the spider does a home-style C-section on our young protagonist -- baby spiders scurry forth and everyone lives happily ever after.
The author made excellent use of a few side plots that gave force to the disturbing qualities of the story. Such as: mother and father resigned to their children being used by a race of conquering aliens as incubators; a sister that finds the whole procedure her brother is forced to endure weird and she can't understand his willing consent to it; the young male has mixed feelings and uncertainty about his role as "mother" which almost precipitates delivery without attendance by the spider-mother. Only in the final moments of the story, during the birthing operation, does the boy and the reader discover that the operation is not normally lethal. (Kids, please don't try this at home.)
How is this a new perspective on an otherwise "ordinary" situation? Admittedly this is a strange scenario without comparison -- at least unless you consider the situation of human females. No you say, they like tubular organs being inserted into their abdominal cavity; and, they love carrying a growing fetus within their womb tapping into the blood stream living off the body. These things are natural and wonderful -- to be practiced by the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.
In the short story, because of his emotional quandaries, the young boy evades administrations that would normally have led to the injection of spider produced drugs. Presumably this spider venom would have the effect of chilling the human incubator out. It is well known that fetus and mother both produce biochemical drugs that have the pharmaceutical effect of drastically altering the psychological makeup of "mom". Would it still be a wonderful, spiritual experience to have a parasite grow within one's abdomen were it not for a few biological drugs? In the case of human reproduction with millions of years of evolution behind it, probably yes. This does, however, point out the potential that is inherent in viewing an "ordinary" situation from a slightly bent perspective. And, I do believe bent is appropriate for the storyline as described.
I remember with fondness the horror and disturbing alien quality that H.P. Lovecraft was able to imbue into a simple description of walking along a catwalk late at night. Admittedly the hero was psychically injected into another body -- pyramidal in shape with wiggly tubes at top. Even so, nothing deadly or otherwise horrific was happening -- in fact nothing was happening other than a walk in the evening under a fine amber sky and blue setting sun. Ah, the value of writing craft and a slight psychotic twist of mind.
We like to think of ourselves as the purpose of creation. Millions of years and trillions of gallons of evolutionary sweat and blood spent to fine tune the bipedal wonder called Homo Sapien sapien. You know. . .if there was an intergalactic contest to determine the most humble lifeform in the universe we would win hands down -- just so long as we were the judges. Humility that's our middle name, right after the part where hell freezes over and Macy's gets a massive fur coat order from Lucifer.
What if. What if there was a creature, virus like strand of raw genetic material (perhaps extraterrestrial DNA), that was able to infect all of the life on earth, turning the full resource of every cytoplasmic machine in existence to the perpetuation of itself. Admittedly the virus would have to be controlled in its production rate. Any full scale mass production would kill the hosts. So let's assume that this conquering virus knows how to keep its demands within reason -- maybe just inserting itself semi-harmlessly into the genetic makeup existing already within each and every nucleus. In this situation, nothing would change other than the simple fact that life would no longer be geared to the single-minded purpose of serving man. Nope, all of life would be turned toward the goal of perpetuating a short strand of extraterrestrial DNA.
I have an optional view of life to propose -- an interesting (from the writer looking for a story idea perspective) alternative to the "man is God's gift to creation" and the "life as a machine to service invading extraterrestrial genetic code" view. However, it would be much too sudden and anticlimactic to just blurt it out without benefit of several pages of diversion, so . . . let's take a look at the science of protein synthesis.
The first step in the production of proteins is preparation of a mobile template called mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid). Think about it. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) carries the complete genetic information needed for production of every protein made in the cell -- not unlike the head office at a manufacturing plant. The head office contains a full set of blue-prints for each component manufactured on site. Now, if you worked in the head office would you want all of the production to occur right in your office? No, I don't think so. If you had an ounce of brains, or a few million years to work out the office procedure, you would probably hit upon the inspiration of making a copy of the plans and sending this copy down to the production floor. Thus keeping the noise and mess of production out of the head office. In addition by sending a copy the only set of plans won't be lost should anything go wrongg.
This use of a strand of messenger-RNA as a template copy for production is typical of a eukaryote. To give you an idea of the type of cell they are, consider the definition of a eukaryote: a cell with a distinct membrane separating the nucleus from the rest of the cellular constituents. This separation of management and the hoi-polloi is just the kind of thing a eukaryote is known for.
Let's for the moment ignore questions of who decides what protein to produce and how the order is given to the production staff. Let's take it as read that the production-team knows which protein to produce and which segment of DNA contains the production template for that protein. (Okay let's for the moment ignore a body of questions that comprise some of the hottest and potentially most rewarding areas of research happening in molecular biology today. Not a problem: funding committees ignore them all the time.)
A type II polymerase has the job of making a mRNA copy of the genetic code to be used as a template for the wanted protein. To make this template the polymerase must open the DNA double helix exposing the nucleotide code as partially unraveled single strands. I don't know how the polymerase keeps track of which strand of DNA to copy. In case you weren't already aware of it DNA stores information as a modified form of Morse code using four nucleotides: guanine and cytosine, adenine and thymine. These individual elements are composed in trinucleotide sequences of three nucleotides each -- forming a codon. This makes for a total DNA alphabet of 64 letters. For the purpose of this article it is only necessary to know that a certain subset of these 64 possible trinucleotide sequences are coded to the various amino acids that make up proteins.
Biology and life in general has a real fascination for beads -- long strands of similar elements put together in various sequences. Consider:
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long double-stranded helix made from four different beads -- guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine.
RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a single strand made from four beads -- guanine, cytosine, adenine and uracil. (RNA uses uracil in the same way that DNA uses thymine -- only differently.)
Proteins are wadded-up strands made from beads of amino acid. With 20 basic amino acids (essential: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine; and nonessential: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutaine, glycine, proline, serine, tyrosine) the variety of strands that can be made is astronomical in possibility.
Carbohydrates are variable length strands made from beads of sugar.
This obsessive involvement with beads and the consequent underlying nature of all biological life being built from beads surely must point to something profound and subtle. Why heck darn, one could even look at organs and other cellular masses as three-dimensional beaded tapestries where each cell composes a single bead. However, we have already wandered far afield from our original topic.
As I recall we left the main thread of thought shortly after wondering how Type II RNA polymerase keeps track of which strand of DNA to copy. We may as well leave that question in the same bucket as the mysteries of how polymerase knows when and which gene to copy. Having set aside a few hundred thousand hours of study let's move on to the question of what happens to this strand of messenger-RNA now that it has been produced.
Well, maybe it simply floats around until it just happens to fall through a hole in the nuclear membrane or maybe some cellular boy scout shows it across the street of the nuclear plasma and on to the other side of the nuclear membrane. I prefer to think that my protein synthesis is a bit more intentional and that these all important blue-prints don't simply float around until they happen to wander over to the manufacturing stations of the cytoplasm.
However it gets there, once the messenger-RNA template does get into the cytoplasm it hooks up with a ribosome or two or three. Ribosomes are the Henry Fords of protein synthesis. They are responsible for the translation of mRNA into strings of amino acids -- i.e. proteins. Ribosomes being made of two subunits, each composed of a RNA-protein complex, look like fat hamburger buns -- roughly spherical with a groove down the middle. Most of the time you can find ribosomes laying about the rough endoplasmic reticulum (don't you just love big long scientific names?) like fuzz-balls on a woolly sweater. When you get several ribosomes attached to the same length of mRNA scientists give the combo a new name -- polyribosome. I rather prefer the name "Functional unit of protein synthesis consisting of several ribosomes attached along the length of a single molecule of mRNA each plunking away." But other scientists seem to prefer the shorter name "polyribosome."
I have discussed this obsessive drive to use short Latin or Greek sounding names with several of my former colleagues. I know I've discussed this since these conversations tend to stand out in my memory -- typically being one of the last meetings I had with these same former colleagues. Not being one to dwell on other's failings I shall leave off further reminiscences of their short sightedness and continue on the journey toward a description of protein synthesis.
Active ribosomes look very much like beads on a string, bumping their way down the line inserting one amino acid after another onto a strand of protein growing out of the backside as it slips along the messenger-RNA. Aiding in this process are the crucial but flighty tRNA (transfer ribonucleic acids).
Transfer-RNAs are balls of molecular lint with a special nucleotide triplet anticodon on one end and an amino acid temporarily attached to the other. The tRNA recognize codons on mRNA. By this recognition the appropriate tRNAs are brought into alignment, each in turn, along the ribosome during protein synthesis. The tRNA snuggles between the cheeks of two ribosome hemispheres positioning its anticodon triplet against the corresponding codon triplet of the mRNA chain. There is at least one species of tRNA for each amino acid; but, in practice most cells possess about 30 types of tRNA. How's that for a piece of trivia that will never be needed on Dialing for Dollars or Jeopardy ? In case you were wondering, a bit of tRNA with its corresponding amino acid attached and waiting expectantly to be stuffed into a growing protein chain is called: aa-tRNA (amino-acyl transfer RNA) The aa-tRNA can be considered a transient but stable activated intermediate in the formation of the peptide bond. In biology any molecule that is excited or in any other way energized above "normal" is considered unstable and transient. No wonder some scientists have won for themselves a reputation of being dowdy.
If the codon of the mRNA and the anticodon of the tRNA do not match, then out the window with that particular tRNA and the next one gets to try its three-fingered hand at matching the current letter in the mRNA template. Once the head of the tRNA corresponding to the next codon in sequence makes its way into the ribosome groove -- kissing anticodon to codon it wiggles its little butt around until the attached amino acid is magically added to the growing protein chain. Actually it's not magic but catalyzed amino acid bond reactions that do the trick. But if you ask me enzymes and other forms of catalysts are magic.
Speaking of magic Darriel Fitzkee has several great books on the subject: The Trick Brain , Magic and Misdirection , and Stage Magic . The book most relevant to the current issue is Magic and Misdirection. Stage magician or not there is no excuse for not reading this book. Not having read Magic and Misdirection is almost as bad as not having read H. Allen Smith's The Complete Practical Joker . The mind shudders at the thought of making it through life without reading these two marvels. In any case, misdirection as explained by Mr. Fitzkee relies upon the ability of the magician to fool himself. To make the audience believe that a half dollar is in the left hand when all the while one has hidden it in the folds of skin under the thumb, it is necessary for the magician to make him or herself believe that the half dollar is in the left hand. If the magician can do this then all of the subtle body movements will support the lie. Well, readers of science fiction, perhaps it has occurred to you that if the writer can convince him or her self to assume the alternate point of view then the story will naturally support and communicate this perspective.
Therefore I think it is time to admit that great writers are voluntary schizophrenics. Before you get out the nets and make reservations at the rubber-room motel consider: believing little green men hide behind your bathroom mirror will not get you into trouble anywhere near as fast as the obsessive or compulsive need to tell everyone you meet, including strangers on the street, that little green men hide behind your bathroom mirror. Let's face it, the functional definition of sanity is: can the patient behave him or herself, do they pose a threat to themselves or others, and do they bring people down at a party. The trick to all of this is to appreciate the situation of others. If you know the effect that you are having on others and are willing to place the needs of another ahead of your own then a little thing like believing little green men hide behind the bathroom mirror will not get you into trouble.
Which brings us back to my alternate view of life.
DNA is a beautiful thing. The genetic code is a marvel of nature, truly inspirational. Proteins, fats, and starches are clunky in comparison to the elegance of DNA. Each animal stems from a single fertilized cell, one set of chromosomes. The one true constant throughout the body is the DNA genetic structure. A nerve cell is so different than a liver cell which is itself so different compared to a nose cell. But, each carries the same set of genetic templates. It is not that far a stretch to consider the purpose of biological life as the care, maintenance and propagation of DNA. Even the diversity of life can be taken as a strategy to insure the survival of at least one genetic combination.
What if the DNA double helix provided a superconducting plasma field that was the world of an alien lifeform, one that required the shaped electromagnetic potentials found in DNA? What if each chromosome was but one grain of sand in this other world? What if the nature of the cell surrounding the DNA didn't matter? What if the nature of the organism in which the cell was found didn't effect the utility of the DNA? What if a pack of muskrats and a room full of lawyers were just as efficacious as a herd of water-buffalo? What if that buzzing swarm of crawling bees sensation you get from time to time was but a symptom of your true purpose in life -- a walking matrix of DNA potential fields?
I admit, this is a very strange notion. To imagine all of life, the wonders of biology, the elaborate machines of protein synthesis, catabolism and anabolism, millions of years of evolution, eating, sleeping and trillions of mating dances all designed to provide a monstrous matrix of buzzing DNA to make up a world for something that we can't even appreciate. And all the time I assumed that all of this was designed to serve the pleasures of man.
Remember -- we are all out-patients until they catch us, and have the budget to keep us.
Gather E. Coli while you may.
CLAUDE NEEDHAM, Ph.D