I live in the future, and in the future strange things do exist.
We expected the biotech revolution to be rapid, accessible, open. With the Human Genome Project and Biobricks, the turn of the century seemed promising. Open access to data, collaborative mapping and design.
But then it all changed.
As multicellular organisms and designer animals began entering research and testing phase, the industry began to oppose the open access to their genetic tools. Many genes and major control sequences were patented, along with the techniques and systems design that was necessary for genetic programming, but they were patents. They were open for anyone to read. They would expire. And with China close on the heels of biotech research, the industry lobbied the government for more protectionist measures.
And when they lobbied, they lobbied fear. Fear of homegrown bioterrorists working in their basement labs, following protocols from open access patents and journal articles. Laws were passed. Patents and papers made inaccessible. But that still wasn't enough.
Because anyone worth their salt in biochemistry could reverse engineer the genomics sequences, PCR out the important bits and paste them into heterologous hosts, or knock out the terminator gene sequences. Anyone could reprogram a single cell to grow the entire organism. Auxotrophic knockout organisms and other control mechanisms had already been tried and failed. And with armies of Chinese genome sequencers standing by to rip apart any system they dared invent, they had to progress. They had to innovate.
And along came the second-generation biological rights management, reminiscent of the shabby DRM technologies of the early noughties. Synthetic amino acids paired with proprietary codons, preventing heterologous expression. D-Organisms, requiring oppositely chiral feedstocks. They're both still around, but fell out of favour with the industry; genomic differentiation took centre stage.
Uncommon in unicellular organisms, one of the hallmarks of multicellular is cell differentiation. One genome, with hundreds to thousands of cell types, each differentiated cell expressing only a fraction of the billions of base pairs of the entire organism. In order for the organism to function, all of the billions of base pairs are required. But for every individual part, only a subset is needed.
And very few cells require self-replication machinery. No cells need to replicate the entire genome.
It was proof of concept at first; cutting out unneeded code in terminally differentiated cells. Neuronal cells don't need haemoglobin. Bone cells don't need melanin. Neurons that could only be neurons. Bones that could only be bones.
The industry capitalized on the technology, creating engineered organisms with only a single seed cell, from which all differentiated cells derived.
But the Chinese caught on, ripping the organisms apart and panning through the cells to find that single gem. Technologies for identifying cells by their surface markers had been around since the beginning of biotechnology, and no matter how many masking groups or dummies they added, the seed cells were always found.
Until one bright young mind by the name of Janice Wiltshire decided to apply the same genetic differentiation principle to entire eusocial colonies. Caste differentiation. After all, all ants in a colony share nearly identical genetic information; the difference between soldiers and queens is only in expression. Soldiers don't need to reproduce, and neither do genetically differentiated cells.
Wiltshire designed the first of the Mothers, a vat-born monstrosity of flesh and bone, of fine diaphanous mycelia which pierced every tissue of the embryonic organism, building them not from the inside out, but the outside in. They themselves were self-renewing, but the creatures that they build did not, could not, under any circumstances. No means of reverse engineering, and kept under the tightest security that capitalism could buy.
I remember the first time I saw one of them, a third generation Mother. An elephantine mass of chitinous tissue fed by innumerable tubes, a central cavity where the wispy collagen ghost of a daughter organism was beginning to take form. Unnatural. There's no other word to describe it. The body plan was designed to an engineered perfection, Hox genes bent beyond all recognition, as if evolution took a wrong turn somewhere along the path of evolution and abandoned all concepts of symmetry or segmentation. Monstrosities, but undoubtedly useful.
The proceeding generations allowed the organisms to grow with less artificial support to reduce maintenance, and allowed the creation of Secondaries and Tertiaries; lumbering organisms which, although unable to create copies of themselves, could still create copies of other downstream organisms. Entire ecosystems could be derived from a single primary Mother, from growing coral islands from ocean bottoms to processing entire forests into prefabricated houses. The rising sea levels were staved off, poverty and hunger eradicated.
And then, of course, it all went wrong.
We blame Wiltshire, of course, though truth be told, we have no evidence to pin the event on her. All we know is that, as Mothers became more and more prevalent, we saw her less and less, and she disappeared, stopped showing up to work, a month before we first found the first rogue Mother.
A Tertiary roaming the American Southwest, outside the government-approved testing and research grounds, which responded to none of the fail-safe terminators. Genetic analysis yielded very little (as the system was built to be), but revealed, disturbingly, that not only was the Mother producing D-Organisms, but also had the ability to convert natural L-amino acids to D-chirality. An entire ecosystem of creatures without predators, that could hunt with impunity.
They wiped them out; they found the Primary in a cave in Yosemite, waited upon by thousands of specialized descendants in a forest of D-trees. They burned her and everything in a four mile radius to the ground. But that was only the beginning.
Over the next six years, D-Mothers began appearing across the globe; in the remotest of places, where the conversion were only spotted when the changes became visible by satellite. And each one was treated as a international crisis, to be stamped out before they overwhelmed the native biosphere. D- to L- isomerases were rare in nature, and despite the attempts to biologically contain or inhibit their spread, either by design or evolution the D-Mothers continued to outpace humanity. With rapid mobilization and extreme scorched earth tactics, the contamination was checked, and the world reached a steady state..
But during these six years, the fish stocks began to plummet, and D-fish were dredged up from the depths. Strange streaks began showing up on marine sonar. The D-Mothers were in the oceans, but impossible to find. And the 17th of September, when the first of the Behemoths breached onto shore off the Ivory Coast, marked the beginning of the end.
Primaries, grown to the size of small islands in the depths of the oceans, unconstrained by the pull of gravity, appeared on coastlines, disgorging tens of thousands of secondary organisms at a time. Satellite imaging showed hundreds kilometre-long tentacles serving as supply chains, dredging nutrients from the depths of the ocean. At the same time, the mycelia pierced the very soil itself, killing the natural biosphere from below, and spreading the contamination tens of kilometres inland.
You remember when the nuclear weapons were authorized. You remember the sunless years. But it was all for naught. The nukes barely even slowed the beasts, and when the sun rose at the end of that decade, we knew we had lost.
We learned to adapt. The D-Organisms aren't overtly hostile, colony hiveminds little smarter than ants; we just couldn't live in the world that they were creating. The world population plummeted; crops were limited to hydroponics and aeroponics, kept in tightly skyscrapers to keep out any D-bacteria from getting in. Nature has progressed somewhat as well; D-viruses have been discovered infecting the new populations, and we're still working on domesticating the species of L-capybara that feed off the D-Organisms. It's going to be hard, but humanity can still live. We will survive.
We saw her one last time after that, Wiltshire. Just before the Internet failed, when the NCP cable was finally cut, there were reports of her sailing down the Yangtze, out past the remains of Shanghai. They called her name and she waved from the deck of her catamaran, the Jasmine, and as they gathered by the banks and cursed her name she turned and sailed out into the ocean, out toward rising sun.
I...have no idea where this went. Started out as a nonfiction piece on the current state and theoretical biological rights management, and turned into a piece of post-apocalyptic worldbuilding.
I think I'll file it under fiction, seeing that's basically where it ended up going.