Social Genetworking

“Oh, fercrissakes Melissa!”. The producer had had enough of the garbled retakes. He was hungry, tired, cold and bored of this story. He had a distinct deficit of gin in his blood stream for the time of day, and had had a disastrous date the night previous. It had not gone to plan. Had not ended up in the eagerly-anticipated sex-dampened cocaine frenzy he had foreseen and, while still fantasy, the promise had put him in hot pursuit of brainless camera candy, a depth to which he never usually plunged. The failed reality now only added to the shortening of his patience.
Melissa, standing in front of the TV camera, flung her hands up in exasperation, “Fuck you Jerry! This is hard to read.” Jerry realised a stand-off wasn’t going to move things along at this point, “Okay, okay darling, let’s give it another shot. Nice and easy, just read the auto-cue and we can all just fuck off to the pub.”
Newsmagazine anchor woman and roving investigative reporter, Melissa DiCosta took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a minute. She pictured her intimidating producer, naked except for a floral bathing cap perched askew on his head. She did this for no other reason than that was what her acting coach had trained her to do in such highly-pressured situations, “… and it’s got to be one of those wrinkly pink caps with sticky-out flowers. Make them yellow dear. Somehow they always need to be yellow. Won’t work otherwise. And, if it’s a women, she’s going to have saggy tits and stretchmarks. For one of us, give him a small cock. It’s all in the power of the mind dear. Think yourself to success!”
With this mantra reverberating, Melissa drew herself up to her full 5’7”, pushed back her shoulders and shook out her shoulder-length hair. Jerry poked his head out from the back of the camera, “Right, good luck, and … go!” Melissa read from the scrolling auto-cue,
“The technology had sprung out of the music-sharing that had been rife in the early 21st century. That trend had run its course, inevitably concluding in the final collapse of the music label concept and a return to independently, bedroom-produced albums, home concerts and garage bands. The guts of an entire industry had been ripped out and strewn for sky-burial at the mercy of the culture-vulture pirates. But that prey had passed and the hackers were hungry for new digital meat. Like all emerging movements, it was just a matter of time before technology had skewered some tasty, virginal flesh, and what rich pickings they turned out to be. A fantastically suitable media for the file-sharing method and, with it, a cornucopia of possibilities for human diversity. Therefore, how devastatingly impoverishing it would be for humankind no one could ever have guessed. In retrospect it was as inevitable as the collapse of the music industry. It was human nature.”
“Annnnnnd … cut! … Thank fuck for that, ahhh. What I mean, of course, is well done darling. That was very professional. You nailed it … in the end.”
Two hours and thirteen-point-six minutes later, when the broadcast went out, mixed live into homes across the nation, the item streamed seamlessly, it’s audience blind to the informalities of newscasting. As the pre-recorded Melissa was reaching the end of her piece, in perfect timing with the production assistant’s countdown, the call went out from the gallery director, “Standby to roll 31. Put line 31 up on route 3. It’ll probably be coming out of edit 47. Ten to the roll, standby 31. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five seconds, four, three, two, one. Roll 31! And put it up with track.” This had the desired effect on the switcher and VTR Operator who deftly synchronised themselves to bring up the next segment.
The voice for this next segment was instantly recognisable as still-being Melissa’s, as she spoke over footage of a typical suburban, red-brick, low-fronted house, the yard and a few outhouses,
“Home Sequencing had started modestly. The brainchild of teenage innovator Mark Spencer, it had emerged gradually out of the clutter of his father’s garden shed, an Aladdin’s cave of rusty tools and lawnmower parts. Discarded projects littered the workbenches, cemented under a veil of cobwebbed ambitions. The forgotten tomorrows of yesterday.”
The narrative was accompanied by a camera pan, the full length of a suitably cluttered workshop bench piled high with mechanical guts and arterial wiring. A bold, white ‘Reconstruction’ filled a red box in the upper left hand corner of the screen. It continued,
“One such pile of parts contained mainly circuit boards and electronic components, but it had capsized on to a neighbouring pile of laboratory glassware retrieved from a school summer fair,” the pictures now switching to an incongruous, blurry slow-motion of children in a school playground.”
“So, you’re saying you did not obtain the equipment from a stockists of laboratory apparatus?” The policeman’s face was uncomfortably close for a man seemingly unable to talk at any sociably acceptable volume. A mist of spit made Mark blink. “No. I’ve told you. It was the school just having a clear-out. Even the TV has been saying that’s what happened,” he gesticulated towards the screen on the opposite wall. “It was a bit of a cheek calling it their fair really.”
Mark found himself in a living nightmare. A colossally twisted complexity of a nightmare that had been hounding him for so long, to at last climax in this dramatic denouement, a surreally ironic coda, a balletic finale comprising the strangest of dance partners: his interrogation in a bare cell, bar the bars and save for the screen, and the theatrical other-world being enacted out on its painfully impartial surface. The story it was telling was a modern history, it was his story but, until being brought there, he hadn’t had a clue of the extent of his involvement. The full-scale truth and the cop’s breath was making him retch in equal amounts. It helped him by thinking about the female reporter. He liked her voice, and the way she said his name was having a pleasurable, warming effect,
“It was from this dusty confusion that Spencer junior found his inspiration for what started out as an automated DNA gel electrophoresis machine but was, within the year, a fully-functional gene sequencing and assembly unit. Essentially a home-made genetics laboratory.”
Shit! Why did she have to go and call him junior? It dowsing effect immediately broke the spell. His flickering ardour admittedly had been puerile, but at least it had also been distracting. But she had been right about the home-made genetics lab. That’s how it had started. He had stumbled across a way to make a home-made genetics lab.
“Mark hadn’t been sure how useful his invention would be to start with. What was the use of a machine without a job to do? People didn’t need to construct genomes, nature did that for them, albeit with some degree of genetic error and unfortunate mishap …”
“Yeah … but with the added bonus of a shag thrown in! Perks of the job you might say.” The policeman looked pleased with himself. He looked over at his less alert partner to see if his quip had registered. It hadn’t. Cop Two was still studiously inspecting the smeared remains of a slow-flying fly: an elongated epitaph to all cold-blooded animals.
“However, societal pressures soon provided Mark with a role for his machine.”
The televised feed had now switched to typical scenes of laboratory life. Black boxes of scientific sorcery covered most surfaces. Robotic spasms cudgelled and jiggled their test-tube contents into an rainbow-riot of coloured solutions.
“Since the early second half of the 21st century, progress in genomics had made it possible to construct a human being from scratch.”
“Well, in theory at least. It’s impossible without the proper Presidential clearance.” “Hey! You watch what you’re saying. You hear?” Mark’s snide remark had at last stirred the fly-staring policeman, another shouter. Mark melted into the back of his seat and the TV dominated once more,
“Huge hurdles had been overcome when the epigenetic code had been cracked.”
“What the hell’s this hippy heppy genetic crap?” Cop Two had been distracted from his study and now attended to the TV broadcast. His partner visibly prepared himself for the explanation he was about to offer, “Epigenetics is that other stuff not in DNA, but it knows how the DNA gets used. It’s taken fifty years to work it out they say, ‘cos it’s so complicated and that. They did think genes weren’t linked, but it turns out they really like talking to each other and stuff.”
After a moments pause to think this over, the second cop’s face lit up, “One gene, one protein. Right?” “Oh! Wrong. Very, very wrong,” Mark blurted before he could stop himself. He breathed relief when he realised the cops were going to ignore him, favouring the TV screen once more.
“The breakthrough had come when nanotechnology had come good enough to track individual biochemicals within each cell from its point of production at the gene interface in the cell nucleus, all the way to its destination point of utilisation, often only millimetres away.”
“The other side of the galaxy in cellular terms,” Mark muttered, this time well under the volume of the TV.
“Now the genetic universe was completely known, navigated by nanobots and mapped out in infinitesimal detail.”
“But they stopped any developments in medicine and genetic therapies.” Mark was now adding his own parallel narrative. “Instead, a cloak of insecurity in the new technology was thrown down ,largely taking the form of government spin. A blanket of caution over its misuse. In reality, most rational people thought it was a way to exert control over the labs who had the potential to make some use out of their discoveries.” Again the cops didn’t look round.
“Legislation had made human genetics illegal, but that was a red rag to a bull for those people who want nothing more than what they are told they can’t have. And so, old music pirates had their new digital currency thrust upon them, an infinitely modern song with new and interesting lyrics, and with Mark Spencer’s Home Sequencing kit, the whole world would come to know it, hum it, and dance to its tune.”
Mark’s face dropped; however innocent he had started out in all this, he was undeniably implicated by now. The cesspit of coincidence was now sloshing right up and over his head.
“The first wave saw Mark Spencer’s blueprints leaked and gradually propagated across the internet.”
“But, like I’ve told you before, I was always careful with my kit plans, more through habit than vision. It was a virus in a friend’s email that did the damage. It must have blindly picked up various file fragments from my hard-disk. It was a tragic twist of fate that randomly brought together the two parts of the master file and wired them off to to all the email recipients in my address book. Most of these messages ended up in people’s spam boxes, but one got through to a friend of my younger brother.”
The cops didn’t look convinced. Cop One once again drew close to Mark’s face, “And, I suppose this friend just happened to be scrupulous enough to recognise a technical blueprint, and devious enough to quickly pass it on into even less ethical hands?” “And at a modest price,” added Cop Two sarcastically, hovering somewhere in the background.
“Look, the Home Sequencing file-sharing torrent was marginally successful, just for its curiosity value, you know, amongst a certain class of geek, and totally impossible to contain, however hard I tried.”
“The second wave coincided with the governmental seizure of all materials relating to human genomics currently held throughout university departments and private institutes. This was to protect the public against ruthless exploitation by genetic terrorists at a huge cost to the government. The well co-ordinated operation cost the treasury undisclosed billions.”
Mark found it easier to slip back into his automatic dialogue with the program narrative than argue his case with the cops, “That wasn’t the real reason. The financial reasoning was readily evident as soon as select licenses were allocated to a handful of government-run medical centres, and money started pouring back in, from every single couple seeking a guarantee that their new-born were neither victims nor carriers of a genetic disease, an improvement on the odds offered by traditional, sexual means. And that, basically, meant every single couple.”
“Suddenly, Mark Spencer’s invention was very much in demand. Long ago, music file-sharing had risen out of a perceived greed by the music industry and organised criminals had facilitated methods to make and distribute illegal copies of music.”
“Now babies were overpriced, but the hackers could see a way around the law, and it would be as impossible to police as copyright crime had proved half a century earlier. This was motivation enough.”
“Similarly, gene sequence sharing was surprisingly easy. The ease of the process from the strings of nucleotide sequence to the birth of new life proved the most important factor in facilitating uptake of the new technology.”
“By hackers and non-hackers alike, and by hackers paid by non-hackers, and by non-hackers paid by their like.” Cop One was clearly keeping up.
“That’s right!” Mark suddenly sensed that perhaps there was a glint of sympathy for his predicament. “The beautiful simplicity of the genetic code meant that files only needed to consist of the nucleotide initials, you know, A, T, G, C. At 4 bits per letter, even the largest protein-coding sequences only took up a few megabytes, and that meant lightning-fast transfer times. None of this waiting around forever for your chosen file to download. Pretty much click and it was there.”
“Once the user had downloaded their chosen nucleotide sequence, the next stage was to generate an ‘inseminate’ genome from the multiple sequences collected from the internet.”
“That’s what was copied across to the Home Sequencing kits, already primed with nucleotides within a cocktail of chemicals readily available over the counter. You see it really wasn’t my doing. I didn’t go about working all this out.”
“Mark Spencer’s machine then engineered a fully integrated genome by applying genetic and epigenetic rules assessed in comparison with an infinite database of existing genome sequences hosted across the web. The Home Sequencing kit could then extract the completed ‘inseminate’ genome and inject it into nanobot ‘male gametes’ using an optional piece of software that extended the existing kit’s hardware functionality.”
“It was named the Widget Exchange Tube patch, or WET for short. Insemination itself followed the route taken by same-sex couples for centuries, the gigolo turkey baster. And it was loads better than the Government’s program of artificial selection. The hackers’ way would inevitably lead to greater diversity in future generations simply because the stretch of the internet extends beyond the usual constraints on mate choice: nationality, religion, even sex. Man! Suddenly, the gene pool was global for everyone, and not restricted to comparatively local encounters within social groups.”
“But, it didn’t work out that way did it? The calamity, for you and everyone else, was that instead of being pragmatic and ensuring diversity, people instead tended towards their stereotypes, the same narrow set of characters that they themselves had, they chose for their children. Rather than being broken down, barriers were reinforced and a vicious circle set up perpetuating cultural and genetic divides. You’ve forced all of humanity into a bottleneck, and now you’re gonna pay!” Mark was stunned into silence by the policeman’s sudden display of understanding.
“Rather than the Government’s policy for an unlimited population, it is believed that the use of Mark Spencer’s machine led to the emergence of global genetic bottleneck, driving up immunodeficiency within each genetic sect, and driving down disease tolerance. Everybody wanted to reap the rewards, and everyone paid the price.”
“But you’ve got to believe me. It wasn’t my doing. It wasn’t my fault. It was all because of human nature, the future was predictable, long before it ever happened.”
As it had done so a couple of dozen times before, the newsmagazine broadcast restarted on its continuous loop into the cell. Melissa was back in shot. Shoulder-length hair was perfectly balanced across the padded shoulders of her satin suit jacket. A glimmer of a smirk momentarily wrinkled her lips, as if she was imagining an entertaining sight. Otherwise, she looked poised, collected and in control, straight out of the screen and straight into the transfixed and supercentenarian eyes of Mark Spencer.
“After over three-quarters of a century in pursuit, the fugitive, and the mastermind behind our genetic collapse, has been caught. Police have been holding Mark Spencer here,”
she made a deliberate nod over her right shoulder, towards the maximum security institution in the background,
“at this Supermax prison …”

About JFDerry

Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.
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4 Responses to Social Genetworking

  1. Simon Williams says:

    Bringing together science and story-telling can only be good. I read it for the narrative and liked it. I’ll go back and see what more I can understand of the science

  2. JFDerry says:

    Thanks Simon. It’s nice to know that writing is working on any level. The science isn’t too deep, more procedural: laboratory techniques.

  3. Mo McFarland says:

    I enjoyed this very much. I could easily imagine it expanded into a full length novel exploring the ideas suggested in it more fully. Though as a non-scientist I might need a glossary if you do!

  4. JFDerry says:

    Thanks Mo, it is a fine balance between content and jargon. I’ll try and tame the science a bit.

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