You can’t be indifferent to slime. It’s either fascinating or disgusting. Children love it, adults loathe it. Aversion to slime marks the passage from crude to civil; from id to superego. Slime is aligned with feces, pus, and other body fluids. Only primitives, dirtbags and scientists remain charmed by it, more boys than girls.
Evo Lucio, PhD,
Tales of Slime
Evo still loved slime, but for good reasons. It was his bread and butter. Much of nature and disease is about slime. Most healthcare workers have to transcend the “ick” factor to do their jobs well, but not Evo: he was already a fan and a leader in the field.
On the other hand, slime should never be taken lightly. It’s synonymous with disease and decay. Its foul smell warns us to stay clear. But Evo wasn’t afraid or ashamed of it. The more he understood slime, the more the world made sense. Slime was everywhere, it blanketed everything, living and dead. It dominated every ecosystem…and many human endeavors. You may not like it, but you better respect it.
Evo’s love for slime did not stop him from fighting it. The quest for the “anti-slime” was his Holy Grail. In this cause, he was not alone. Organisms have been battling slime for billions of years. There are substances in the blood that prevent slime formation. Coral stays pristine, despite all the biofilm in the oceans. Aspirin-like compounds in plants deter slime and keep it from clogging stems. That’s why aspirin is used in vase water to preserve cut flowers. Aspirin was the first anti-slime agent Evo studied.
“Aspirin is a mild poison that blocks energy production,” Evo instructed. “Without this energy, bacteria cannot make slime.”
His aspirin work was now buried deep in the scientific literature. He abandoned it for MIFF, which was orders of magnitude more potent. It was a game-changer that attracted attention worldwide, including two high-caliber graduate students about to take Evo’s work to the next level.
Ayden Fry was no ordinary joe. Underneath the diminutive, twisted frame was a brilliant mind. He was a rock star in the lab, able to manipulate life at the molecular level. His mastery of genetics promised to help solve riddles borne by Evo Lucio’s work.
“Check this out!” Ayden shouted from Evo’s office, prompting Katey to join him from the lab. She stood behind as he magnified microscopic images onto the computer screen. Neon-green fluff balls flitted about every which way.
“Wow! That’s neat!” Katey leaned forward, eyes wide open.
Dr. Lucio entered the office to join in the spectacle.
“Our slimy foe, in full regalia.” Ayden quipped.
“Is that the Kleb from the hospital epidemic?” Evo asked.
“The one and only!”
“Why is it fluorescent?” Evo asked.
“It contains a firefly gene.”
“A firefly gene?” Katey responded. “That’s awesome!”
“It’s called bioluminescence. I linked Kleb’s speed genes to genes that make things glow. When the neon’s bright, the bug is most active. When the motion fades, so does the light. When the screen goes black, the bugs are dead. Now we can easily monitor and measure speed in any bug to which we transfer these genes.
“Bioluminescence will help us gauge the effects of drugs on bacteria,” Ayden added, “and facilitate a more serious study of MIFF.” It was also a powerful model to study bacterial speed. Katey and Evo were impressed, though he feared the project was moving beyond his control.
But Ayden was virtually unstoppable. Hailing from wealth, he never lacked for resources. His inheritance kept him from want, along with a full scholarship from Brookstone. Ayden Fry could devote himself entirely to research. He understood the focus and time required, having planned this journey since childhood.
In stark contrast, Katey Cairn was beautiful and gracious. She approached her work without fanfare or ego. With several publications and presentations already under her belt, Katey was arguably the most accomplished student Brookstone ever enrolled. She was also well acquainted with the doings of science.
It was unusual for a botanist like Katey to be doing research at a hospital, but she was not in any sense usual. Her interest in plant disease started as a child, tending her mother’s garden. She worked in a nursery part-time in high school, and managed the campus gardens in college. Her focus was on bacteria-plant relationships. It was shrewd to join ranks with Dr. Lucio (a medical microbiologist) and Ayden Fry (a genetic bioengineer), because the study of biofilms demanded a multidisciplinary approach.
Soil contains vast numbers and varieties of bacteria, and Katey had worked with many of them. She was keen on a species called Xanthomonas, a common soil organism that infected plants. Xanthomonas was an unabashed slimer. Like Kleb, it literally dripped from Petri plates. It clogged the flow of water and nutrients up the stems of cut flowers. It caused spotting, wilting, and defoliating in a wide range of plants. Xanthomonas was the poster germ for plant infections.
Interestingly, xanthan gum is a product derived from Xanthomonas slime. It’s a food additive and thickener in ketchup and salad dressing, and a stabilizer in many processed foods. In purified form, slime is not harmful; it’s merely the glue that holds things together.
Katey studied predatory organisms like Xanthomonas as well as friendly soil bacteria. Her motto was to do no harm, so she avoided pesticides and antibiotics. However, she applauded MIFF. If used properly, it could be environmentally friendly. Katey joined Evo’s lab expressly to gauge the safety and usefulness of MIFF in horticulture. Her research was more practical than Ayden’s, but also more respectful to nature.
Some bacteria are more friendly than others. Just as probiotics enhance human health, compost promotes plant health. But “friendly” is a relative term. Many germs are opportunists, promoting health in one set of conditions, and disease in another. Bacteria live in harmony with healthy plants, but destroy old or damaged ones. Thus, plant integrity mattered as much as the germ’s virulence. Katey appreciated this dynamic in soil more than most.
Her nuanced views on health contrasted with those of modern medicine and agriculture. Rather, Big Agra and Big Pharma promoted the germ theory, where microbes are viewed as the enemy. The focus is on destroying germs, rather than optimizing health. There’s much more money in killing things once they invade than in preventing them in the first place.
Granted, some germs are nastier than others, but healthy hosts can resistant them all. This runs squarely against the germ warfare dogma taught in textbooks and practiced in clinics. Recent growth in organic farming and holistic, integrative medicine are departures from the germ theory. Health and harmony can be fostered, rather than attacking microbes with a vengeance. Katey’s temperament was in tune with nature.
In areas where a natural approach didn’t cut it, Katey sought to harness the power of MIFF. It was a natural substance that seemed suitable for organic agriculture. Only small amounts were needed, it degraded quickly, without killing friendly bacteria or contaminating soils. It was consistent with Katey’s do-no-harm philosophy.
Dr. Lucio had already set the groundwork for using MIFF on plants. As part of a hospital-wide experiment, he placed a cut rose in a small vase on the desks of dozens of secretaries throughout Brookstone. Each was treated with various amounts or concoctions of MIFF. With the right dose, roses opened wide and retained their beauty for weeks. They were the talk of the hospital. Evo’s bi-weekly visits with his students were welcomed warmly by each office. It was a clever way to make his science relevant to regular people. In one turn, Evo advanced his standing as inventor, educator…and playboy.
The rose experiment went on for a while, but was eventually reigned in by the hospital, as funds were allocated to build a greenhouse for Evo’s plant work. It was like building a playground to keep kids off the street, and is what attracted Katey to Brookstone. Evo recalled his hospital-wide flirtations fondly, whenever he entered the greenhouse.
Unlike Ayden, Katey had a life outside the lab. Even with a full scholarship, she worked part time to make ends meet. So, she tended the university gardens and played folk music at the local coffee house on weekends. Katey’s long blonde hair spilled onto her guitar when she played. Beauty and grace were part of her being.
Ayden, on the other hand, was bent on manipulating nature. His focus was on ‘speed and disease’. A literature search led him to cholera, one of the most deadly diseases known. Cholera germs use speed to maneuver quickly through the gut and burrow into the gut lining to cause diarrhea. Ayden concurred it was speed that made them so dangerous.
Ayden was delving deeply into the mysteries of motility and virulence. Motility–or movement–takes many forms in bacteria: it can be straight-ahead, circular, twitchy or just random. It depended on the strain and species of bacteria. Cholera went straight-ahead, but motility in Kleb was more random and jerky. It was also faster than in Cholera; much faster. Ayden’s hypothesis was that this blazing speed contributed significantly to the Brookstone plague. It was a testable hypothesis and a worthy pursuit, Evo thought, and the theme for Ayden’s doctoral dissertation.
The next step was to clone the Kleb motility genes into safe bacteria, to avoid contact with a dangerous pathogen. Transferring DNA from one bug to another would produce thousands of new clones, each with a random piece of Kleb DNA in it. Clones that inherited speed genes may also get the linked firefly genes. So, clones that lit up in the dark were candidates for further study. Clocking their motility microscopically would identify the speedy ones. Ayden also wrote the computer program to gauge their speed, by measuring fluorescence. You could say he fashioned a stop watch for the Microbe Indy 500.
Young Mr. Fry refused to go through life unnoticed. People find their thrills in sports, romance, gambling, high-stakes business, or whatever. But Ayden got off creating new life. It mattered less whether his new creatures had any purpose. Cloning new creatures was like playing God. It was the greatest thrill in town.
Nonetheless, Ayden would welcome commercial success from his speed demons. They could be useful in a number of industries: oil spills, waste water treatment, compost production, by speeding up these processes. Speed is good…sometimes.
Scientists worldwide have cloned bacteria and yeast for multiple purposes. Daily, thousands of irrepressible students manipulated genes to create new life forms. The collective contribution to science is unfathomable, and largely for the good. Nevertheless, things can go wrong. One mistake could spell disaster. There are evil scientists that aim to do us great harm. And businesses will do anything to make money. Molecular cloning is anything but safe in the hands of our enemies, criminals and unethical corporations.
Disturbingly, some of those “enemies” are right here at home, working in our laboratories and running our government. The great potential of GMOs to do good is offset by those who would profit at our expense, or who want to hurt us. Rather than improving nutritional quality in our food, pesticide producers are cloning plants to tolerate more pesticides, so they can spray more. These are what Evo called “slimy” business practices. Molecular biology holds much promise, but it can be easily exploited.
Ayden’s didn’t need much space to conduct his experiments, so most of the lab was Katey’s. And she needed it. Exotic plants lined the benches and greenhouse. She would eventually infect them all. In one experiment, she sprayed leaves from dozens of small potted plants with MIFF, then challenged with a nasty plant pathogen to produce infection. MIFF prevented disease and promoted plant growth, even at very low doses. In the reverse experiment, where disease was already established, treating the disease required 10 times as much MIFF. As usual, prevention was the logical choice.
Katey’s early focus was to find the perfect pathogen with which to do her studies. Her Xanthomonas strain was a serious slimer and made a mucous mess in the lab, but it proved relatively harmless to her plants. Still, Katey handled it with good aseptic technique. And she insisted on making it work.
Ayden was not nearly as careful, especially with germs that posed no danger. “These bugs are lame!” he insisted, unlike the more dangerous germs in Evo’s deep freeze, like salmonella, tuberculosis, anthrax and syphilis. These were kept under lock and key.
Ayden respected the power of these germs, especially the speedy Kleb, but saw no danger in his clones, or Katey’s impotent Xanthomonas. Only serious germs required special handling. So non-infectious bacteria were left out on the bench top in Petrie plates. The area between Katey and Ayden’s desk was cluttered with stacks of old plates of her Xanthomonas and his Kleb clones. Their lives overlapped in many ways.
Things got more interesting when Dr. Lucio entered the lab. Evo would present his students with a vast collection of exotic microbes, each with its own color, shape, texture, smell, and sordid history. Evo also reviewed their data and recommended new experiments. Ultimately, they would discuss progress on improving the secret MIFF formula.
Whatever MIFF applications they wanted to pursue would first have to be studied in animals for safety, according to federal regulations. Finding the perfect dose and regimen would also be established in animals. A nearby animal lab on campus was used to conduct these preclinical studies, mostly in mice. They had to show conclusively that MIFF was safe enough to be tested in humans.
Basically, MIFF was not Evo’s baby anymore. Its fate now belonged to two young wizards, who could work independently and were committed to the task. That left Evo free to go off on another adventure.