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10. The Biosculptor

Coel Rydin looked into the glass terrarium full of vampire orchids which sat on a shelf above his workbench. They were all awake and chittering for blood-sap. Several clung to the nipple of their feeding tube, while most fluttered languidly against the terrarium’s walls. A few of the weaker ones huddled on the bottom, near death.

For three years running his orchids had taken first prize in the category “Bioculture of Plant Genomes” at the Missex County Fair. Yet, for all their animal awareness and volition—adapted with the addition of genes from the Helix genus of mollusks to the basic Orchidaceae genome—his best specimens were still sluggish. They could move with direction for no more than a few minutes and then sank into torpor.

“They’re still a work in progress,” he said aloud to his assistant.

“You could say that about evolution, too,” Cinquemain replied.

For his entry this year, Rydin was trying to lengthen flying time by increasing their metabolic rate. The ultimate goal was to let them begin hunting on their own. But none of them yet had the strength—even if they had the sense—to fly from one tree to another, make a cut in the bark, and feed for itself. And they were hopeless as hunters of the latest hybrid species of airborne plants.

In his early work, to convert the wild orchids from their fixed, absorptive lifestyle based solely on photosynthesis and capillary root structures, Rydin had inserted into his first generation the genes for growing the hair-trigger snaps and digestive enzymes of Dionaea muscipula, the Venus flytrap. This was one of the few plant species able to obtain nutrients from chemical conversion of insect proteins, rather than drawing them passively from the soil. … He had picked up an especially aggressive flytrap specimen while on Search in swamps of southeastern Nortamerica during the early Holocene. He then expanded their metabolism to feed directly on sucrose, the dominant sugar in sap, by incorporating genes from the Danaidae family of milkweed butterflies.

“So … what are we doing tonight?” Cinquemain asked.

“Sorting out two-day-old embryos from the fourth generation.”

“Oh, goody! I get to play god again.” The intelligence turned and bent over backward—or as far back as the jointed carapace could bend—to expose the more complex underside. Rydin released a panel, removed the nested glass sphere of Cinquemain’s matrix, and fitted it into the control cradle of his variable-focus microscope. The intelligence’s chassis took two measured steps away from the bench and went into stasis mode: powering down all but the residual circuits needed to maintain its balance and upright posture.

Rydin retrieved a tube of embryos from the incubator and dumped the contents out onto the scope’s induction plate. Twelve hours ago, he had added to the tube an enzyme solution in which each molecule was affixed to a color-coded quantum dot. If the developing embryo expressed a certain gene set—in this case governing the metabolism of sucrose—it also expressed a protein Rydin had inserted only so that it might react with the enzyme and incorporate the dot into the embryo’s cell structure. Four hours ago, Rydin had precipitated the excess enzyme molecules and removed them from the tube.

Now the microscope played an ultraviolet wavelength on the pool of orchid embryos. All of those that had incorporated the quantum dots fluoresced bright orange. Cinquemain began manipulating the plate’s electrostatic fields to corral and separate out the glowing embryos, which presumably would be better able to process sucrose than the others, which had failed to express those genes and so remained dark. The latter he pushed toward a drain hole for disposal. This was mindless work that Rydin was content to let Cinquemain do.

As an amateur biosculptor, Rydin was a bit old-fashioned. He would never stoop to using intelligently designed code patches that had been synthesized for him by informatics software. He preferred instead to work from wild-type genes and control sequences. For example, he used only the wild Orchidaceae, Dionaea, and Danaidae genomes in developing in his orchids. In manipulating them, he cut these genes with the molecular scissors of restriction enzymes and pasted them with the glue of ligation enzymes.

But he wasn’t a complete conservative. He still amplified his code creations outside the cell nucleus using thermo-stable polymerases. And he enlisted Cinquemain’s faster reflexes and greater attention span whenever a task called for either split-second timing or great amounts of patience. In return, he let Cinquemain participate in the experiments and put his name on the articles—after Rydin’s own, of course.

“I begin to think we’ve pushed the sap cycle as far as it goes,” he said.

Cinquemain’s manipulations paused. “Do you want me to stop sorting?”

“No, go ahead. We’ll raise and test this batch. … I’m just thinking aloud.”

“But you’re clearly not happy with our progress?” Having a neuro-electronic firing rate approximately six times faster than any human being’s, the intelligence could easily sort embryos and carry on a conversation at the same time. His voice emerged from the scope’s simple voder in a scratchy parody of his normal tones.

“All our work with the Orchidaceae metabolism has gotten us plants that can barely fly,” Rydin said. “I don’t believe digesting more sap will get them to hunt.”

“Sap is what you feed them. Do you want to try flies?”

“I was thinking of better ways to use the energy itself.”

“Adenosine triphosphate,” the intelligence supplied.

“Ah!” Those two words, spoken obliquely, ignited a train of thoughts in Rydin’s mind. Cinquemain had an uncanny way of doing that—leaping ahead and planting just the right idea in his human’s brain.

The energy molecule that drove every chemical process in eukaryotic, or nucleated, cells was adenosine triphosphate, or ATP: an adenine base attached to a ribose sugar ring that pulled a tail of three phosphorus-and-oxygen groups. This molecular structure happened to put too many negatively charged oxygen atoms too close together, creating an energy disequilibrium. By breaking off the third phosphate group, cells released this energy and restored partial equilibrium. … Rydin suddenly recalled that breaking phosphate bonds was also the chemistry behind many explosives—a powerful reaction indeed! As a byproduct of this energy use, cellular metabolism created a new molecule, adenosine diphosphate, ADP.

The cells regenerated those ADP molecules and made new ATP energy for their various processes by adding back the third phosphate group. Tiny organelles called mitochondria converted the chemical energy of food—carbohydrates in an animal’s diet, or simple sugars produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide in plants—to reconnect those phosphate bonds. The cell’s entire energy cycle proceeded by eternally chopping off, and then restoring, that third phosphate group.

But what if Rydin could engineer another energy cycle? He could take off the second phosphate group as well, converting ADP to adenosine monophosphate, AMP. Then the mitochondria would build it back up to ATP. That would double the amount of energy available to his orchids.

He voiced this thought to Cinquemain.

The intelligence made the voder equivalent of a whistle. “It’s not a natural reaction,” he said slowly. Movement on the induction plate came to a stop, Rydin noticed, indicating the amount of thought the intelligence was giving to his proposal.

“But then,” Cinquemain continued, “all hell breaks loose, doesn’t it? It will be easy enough—well, technically possible—to program the mitochondria to process both mono’s and di’s into tri’s. But you would have to rebuild all the cell’s other processes—working from scratch, mind you—to break down the diphosphates as well as tri’s to obtain that added energy. You would be rewriting practically the entire nuclear genome.”

“Well, surely someone’s tried it and reported on the results.”

“Do we stand on the shoulders of giants now?”

“I’m just poking around for ideas.”

“The judges at the fair will look for original work, Coel.”

“I know that,” Rydin replied. “Anyway, it’s an interesting thought—introducing a whole new set of enzymatic processes at the nuclear level.”

“Too interesting! Plant cells might not be able to sustain and coordinate that much activity.” His assistant finished sorting the embryos and moved the glowing ones to a pickup point. Rydin aspirated them back into the tube. “However, I will begin to frame the literature search,” the intelligence said.

“Not tonight,” Rydin decided. In the morning he was about to go into the Jongleur du Temps clinic for a new genetic procedure himself. The dottori had told him to plan for an absence from his work, not to mention his hobby, of at least three days, possibly as long as a week. And when he came back, he might not be quite … the same person.

“For now, please just do a general survey of the problem,” he instructed the intelligence. “Identify and list the nuclear sequences governing use of adenosine triphosphate in the Orchidaceae genome. We’ll continue this discussion when I return.”

“Very good,” Cinquemain replied.

Rydin removed the glass sphere from the induction plate’s cradle and reinserted it into the intelligence’s general-purpose chassis. The articulated limbs flexed, and the balance point became active.

“And don’t forget to top up the sap tanks on the feeder,” Rydin said, pointing at the terrarium. “Otherwise, if I’m delayed at the clinic, those orchids will likely die.”

“Of course, Coel.”

But if the orchids did perish, it would not be much of a loss. They were an older generation and rapidly becoming obsolete.

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