Author : Robert Niescier
The bacterium was our labâ€™s greatest achievement. An organism engineered to metabolize cellulose into ethanol quickly and efficiently would eliminate humanityâ€™s dependence on fossil fuel and make energy shortages a thing of the past. It was our gift to an energy-starved world.
Sure, there were numerous obstacles to overcome. Sequencing and sorting through the thousands of cellulase and fermentation pathways to find the perfect combination of efficiency and output took time, and we were forced to manually engineer multi-branched carbohydrate metabolic pathways to maximize usage of all the monomeric sugars. The ethanol toxicity posed another problem, but through the optimization of an existing efflux pump the microbe was able to protect itself.
This led to what I considered the coup de grace: the septic cellulose liquefaction efflux pump. The biggest problem, the one we spent years of headaches trying to fix, was getting around cellulose crystalline structure. Sure, the bacterium was able to metabolize the carbohydrates once they got into the cell, but the fermentation was limited by the surface area of the substrate used. Even sawdust took too long to be considered effective. But in mere hours the SCLE-pump turned any cellulose sample, even blocks of wood, into soupy globs of cellobiose disaccharides ripe for absorption and fermentation.
The day after publication we received phone calls from nations all over the world. The Nobel Prize came a year later.
It was a few weeks after Sweden that I noticed something strange happening in the wooded areas around my lab. It was the deer. Their behavior was quite unusual, coming out during the daytime, stumbling into roads, even passing out in odd positions in the open. A graduate student joked that they looked drunk, and a certain suspicion made my stomach rise to my throat. I immediately called an ecologist friend of mine and asked him to look into the blood alcohol count of the local fauna; a few weeks later he called back and said, with astonishment, that it was off the charts.
That day I assembled my team and asked them if any of them had ever poured samples down the drain without properly bleaching them first. A few people looking at their feet were all I needed to see.
Sure, it was a big joke at first, drunk animals, hobos sucking bark for free booze. It became significantly less funny when houses began to slop down onto their foundations, then burst into giant fireballs and fried everyone unlucky enough to still be inside.
It wasnâ€™t the bacterium we engineered that was making the forests melt into goo; it was the DNA. To avoid complications with the microbeâ€™s main genome we had placed all the pathways onto two plasmids; pRN45 and pRN86. We didnâ€™t stop to think that, in a world where 50% of the carbon is locked up in cellulose, that plasmids optimized for its digestion would be so highly selected. Hindsight, I suppose.
It was happening all over and got worse every day. Once it got into the groundwater there was no way to stop it. A plague on everything green and photosynthetic in the world was upon us. Pictures from NASA showed black spots lined with red all over the planet, growing bigger day by day.
We had to retreat to the deserts and tundra and live in caves; there was no other choice. I donâ€™t expect to survive much longer as there is little left to eat, but I donâ€™t want to say that to the others in my cave because they already donâ€™t like me. I canâ€™t imagine why.