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Bacteria: making the most of the microbes in SciFi

Ah, microorganisms. Is there anything they can’t do? Microbiological agents such as viruses and bacteria have become a popular tool for writers seeking to destroy civilisation. The ‘Outbreak’ scenario allows us to strip our characters of law and order’s protections, placing them in exciting future frontiers.

We normally follow a plucky group of survivors picking through a Mary Celeste world, fighting off the hostile infected: humanity returned to evolutionary struggle. Unlike post-nuclear war tales, we can offer a glimmer of hope to our characters. A cure, that brings us back from the brink, and turns the lights back on.

Often enough, the disease becomes a character in its own right, given a title by its mad inventors, a face by its symptoms. It’s a demon that possesses us, transforming us into grotesques, vampires, zombies.

Here scifi is infected by horror and fantasy, losing any sense of scientific grounding. The fact that some Frankenstein created a monster in a test tube is regarded as ‘science’ enough.

Often these stories are pessimistic, playing on modern fears of something ugly lurking beneath the veneer of civilisation (The Walking Dead); of overconfident human science treading on God’s toes (The Stand); or of nature’s revenge on a globalised world (Outbreak).

Fear of the unseen

All are united by fear of the unseen, of microbiology as an invisible invader we cannot recognise until it has already occupied us. In an era of HIV and antibiotics, bacteria seem less threatening to writers, and often lose out to viruses as the ultimate antagonists. This seems unfair. Antibiotic resistance is growing, and bacteria have given us impressive enough threats, including cholera, anthrax, leprosy and bubonic plague.

Should microorganisms play such a limited role in our fiction? The more you investigate the science, the more new story avenues present themselves. Bacteria offer intriguing possibilities beyond the narrow confines of lethal pandemics.

This month, for instance, The Engineer reported on new developments in bacteria-powered energy production. Researchers in the US are using cyanobacteria (a phylum that obtains energy using photosynthesis) to create ‘bio-solar panels’, which produce electricity, opening the way to advancements that could release bio-solar cell technology into practical applications.

Such applications are emerging all the time, offering a vision of a future where microorganisms solve our man-made problems; creating clean energy such as the bio-solar panels; bringing rain to drought-hit regions through bio-precipitation; and cleaning up toxic waste through bioremediation. Bacteria seem to be crucial to our future development.


Bacterial astronauts

Space exploration could be fertile ground for bacteria fiction. Could it be that rather than manned space travel to other worlds, we might first see bacterial astronauts? Bacteria are, after all, among the hardiest of organisms. They flourish in the deepest parts of the ocean, in acidic hot springs, in the Earth’s crust; and in manned spacecraft. Would such organisms not be crucial to colonisation of space?

A story could see dormant starships dispatched to a system boasting an Earth-like world. On reaching the system, the craft’s bacteria are woken by the suns rays, powering up the craft’s systems, which fire bacterial seeding pods into the planet’s atmosphere, making rain and fermenting new organisms, a genesis that makes mankind a new world in six days.

Perhaps the bacterial future will be on a more intimate scale? The human body contains at least as many bacteria as human cells, in our guts, in our orifices and on our skin. We are only beginning to understand how they influence our health, even our minds. Recent studies even suggest that gut bacteria have a powerful effect on our mood and cognitive function.

Bacterial moods

This being the case, might an informed chef not create a new psychological cuisine? We might follow the story of some gourmand who serves dishes laden with programmed mind-altering bacteria, offering a menu of upper mains and downer desserts.

As he experiments and refines his recipes, he discovers that love itself is a bacterial infection. Sickened by a world torn by conflict, he begins dishing out food laden with highly infectious, programmed bacteria. His erotic entrées and passion pastries start a love epidemic, ending war (and the legal profession) overnight.

It’s not the only profession that could be changed by bacterial engineering: HR managers might turn to seeding office keyboards with happy, healthy bacteria, programmed to infect workers and ‘switch off’ on leaving the office – making the workplace the only location where we are truly content.

However the future plays out, one thing seems certain; the more we understand bacteria as equal inhabitants of our world, as capable of good and bad effects as humans, the better we’ll understand ourselves – and the more new, infectious stories we’ll have to tell.

This article was first published in The Engineer magazine on 12 May 2016