Pierre Gittleman is perplexed. Approaching fifty-five years of age, he has been working on his human/plant hybrid botanicus project for his entire adult life, but feels stuck. Despite his brilliance and gift for insight, the power of the gene-editing technology at his disposal, and his success to date, he is bedeviled by forces billions of years in the making. In attempting to hack nature, Pierre confronts both the challenges of interdependent complexity and the uncertainty of chance.
The natural world is filled with checks and balances. Survival mechanisms that work, even for a short while, nonetheless provide a space for errors and mutations, a field of play upon which unfathomable numbers of other organisms engage. Errors, mutations, and interactions with other organisms sometimes improve health and well-being, and other times produce exactly the opposite, namely illness and death. Pierre has run headlong into life’s master plan; namely, that nothing lives forever.
The chimeras coming out the tanks at Pierre’s lab are no longer microscopic Kermits, but air-breathing, animate, animal/plant hybrids able to consistently grow to maturity and reproduce. Having tried a range of genetic combinations, some fanciful experiments and innumerable sincere attempts, Pierre’s expertise has grown. For a while, he incorporated genes from carnivorous plants like Sundews and Pitcher Plants, incorrectly assuming the addition of such capabilities might provide a good nutritional adjunct to photosynthesis alone; the results nearly ended his quest. To do so, required sequencing RNA transcripts that carry a gene’s instructions to see which genes are switched on where and when. This led him into the wobbly world of folded proteins and plant jasmonates.
Jasmonates orchestrate plant defenses against attacks by insects or injury. They also play a central role in plant carnivory. Jasmonates are folded proteins, structures that form complex shapes, and number in the millions within every living cell, plant and animal.
Proteins are not simple, regular little shapes, like soccer balls or short sticks. Beginning as ribbon-like strands, proteins spontaneously “fold” themselves into extremely complex origami-like shapes and structures. The specific way in which a particular protein is folded determines how it works and interacts within the living cell and provides the ability for proteins to accomplish the many tasks essential to sustaining life. The number of possible folding variations is roughly 10 to the 30th, a number so large it would take well over a billion years to try each variation at one per second. Yet proteins fold into a shape specific to their function within 130 millionths of a second. Fast is an understatement.
Proteins sometimes fold improperly, and with uncountable numbers of them it’s inevitable that many will be errant. These protein errors are mostly dissolved, and their components recycled, but sometimes, if they proliferate, they can cause serious health problems. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease in sapiens, it was learned, is due to an accumulation of improperly folded proteins called prions, which aggregate and clog the brain’s discrete and delicate structures, causing cognitive problems.
Proteins exist and function within the medium of the cell, which is mostly water. When water temperatures drop, protein folding unravels. Moreover, there may be a relationship between water and proteins within the quantum realm, raising the possibility that information about folding is being transmitted at the quantum level. This is where things get really wobbly; if this is the case, quantum entanglement may be involved, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”; accordingly, information on the dynamics of protein folding may be transmitted at faster than light-speed from anywhere in space, a non-local phenomenon. Hence Pierre’s perplexity. Despite the power of technology and computation at his hands, the variables are too great. The three-dimensional shapes of folded protein building blocks are a potpourri of structures gathered from many species; they don’t always mesh well. Although software can predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins from an analysis of their genetic sequence, unlike nature, which has had billions of years for experimentation, Pierre is trying to succeed within the time limit of his own short life.
His most vexing problem is the tendency of his creations to return to the mean, which in this case means hunger. Between the animal drive for food and the carnivorous plant genes Pierre spliced into his chimera, he’s created a ravenous cannibal, one that devours, or attempts to devour, nearly everything it encounters, including its own kind. In exasperation, he destroys all the living creatures he’s worked so diligently to create over the past three years.
“Perhaps I’m thinking about this incorrectly,” he murmurs into his audio-record while incinerating his failed progeny. “There was a reason for the split between plant and animal life. I’m missing something. I feel like I’m negotiating a labyrinth filled with twists, turns, and dead ends.”
He walks to his cot, sits himself upright in a half-lotus position and begins to meditate. Pierre is wise enough to know the value of insight, that rationality alone cannot solve all mysteries; intuition has an essential role in his work. His breathing slows and his body begins to relax. Attending to awareness of his bodily sensations, he moves his attention by degrees from his head to his toes, releasing tension with each breath. After an hour, he’s as relaxed as an old man basking in the sun.
It’s then, deeply in Samadhi – or perhaps, asleep and dreaming – that a vision emerges. He’s a small boy, walking the Belle Époque streets of Paris, France with his father Leonard, whose hand little Pierre is holding. The sun is bright, the air is warm, and the sidewalks crowded. Around him Parisienne women accompanied by men in formal attire and top hats, are elegantly dressed in long gowns and gloves, strolling down the broad avenue holding aloft cloth parasols. Amidst the crowd, Pierre looks upwards at the sight of all the parasols, noticing that some are double parasols with an appearance similar to that of a labrys, the mythological Amazonian women’s’ double axe pictured held aloft on ceramic urns of Ancient Crete; the Parisienne women carry them in just the same way. With the crush of the crowd, he holds his father’s hand more tightly, afraid he will get lost. With that growing sense of fear, Pierre’s Samadhi dissolves and its vision ends.
He hurries to his desk and grabbing a pencil quickly sketches his memory of the vision of the raised parasols, single and double, floating above him, supported on thin shafts by upturned arms. “Does this vision contain the insight I’ve been seeking?” he asks aloud. “What does this vision mean?” He dictates as much as he can recall, including the feeling of security contained in the strong hand of his father. He knows something powerful has been transmitted, that contained within this vision is the wisdom he seeks. “Now,” Pierre settles back in his chair, “I just need to figure out what it all means.”
At that moment, he’s startled by a chiming signal. It’s Jacques Lehmann texting, director of the Food Science Institute, where Pierre’s work contributed to creating a new food source, an algae/animal species that is grown, harvested, processed into flavorful, protein-rich, chewy slabs, and now eaten by most of the Halifax population. “Ah, well” Pierre grins, turning to his keyboard, “Perhaps I’ve said too much!”