Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Picture Worth 178 Words

Some of you may remember this scene at the very end of Starfish — the moment when the chrysalis splits open and Lenie Clarke Mk 2 emerges to wreak vengeance on the world:
A slender, translucent tentacle wraps softly around her wrist. It fades away into a distance utterly black to most, slate gray to Lenie Clarke. She brings it to her. Its swollen tip fires sticky threads at her fingers.

She brushes it aside, follows the tentacle back through the water. She encounters other tentacles on the way, feeble, attenuate things, barely twitching against the currents. They all lead back to something long, and thick, and shadowy. She circles in. A great column of writhing, wormlike stomachs, pulsing with faint bioluminescence.

Revolted, she smashes at it with one clenched fist. It reacts immediately, sheds squirming pieces of itself that flare and burn like fat fireflies. The central column goes instantly dark, pulling into itself. It pulses, descends in spurts, slinking away under cover of its own discarded flesh. Clarke ignores the sacrificial tidbits and pursues the main body. She hits it again. Again. The water fills with pulsing dismembered decoys. She ignores them all, keeps tearing at the central column. She doesn't stop until there's nothing left but swirling fragments.
What I was describing, rs and Ks, was a siphonophore. And if my prose wasn't sufficiently evocative, I invite you to look over here, where the real thing squirms across YouTube for your edification. With thanks to Ken Tango for the link.

No dismemberment porn, though. If you want your 'phores battered and broken, I'm still your go-to guy.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Perdido Shell Station

From the outline for Intelligent Design, a near-future Crichtonesque (except, you know, well-written) novel currently languishing on my back burner:
Nate Hochachka arrives on Baffin Island under complete news blackout. He has no idea why CSIS wants him here: he's freshly-minted faculty at the University of British Columbia, still paying off his student loans and trying to come to terms with the ubiquitous back-stabbing politics and infighting of an underfunded department (Hochachka's doctorate is in the neuroecology of marine invertebrates— not the most lucrative niche of the biotech age). Sequestered in a prefab boardroom on the edge of Frobisher Bay, a woman from the Ministry of Natural resources tells him he's been brought in to advise on a matter of national security. A PetroCan underwater wellhead has been wrecked in the disputed zone between Canada and the United States.

Such mishaps happen all the time, of course: sometimes it’s one of the vagaries of a hazardous environment, sometimes an act of sabotage posing as one. What makes this particular event remarkable is a three-second fragment of video footage recovered from a seabed camera, just moments before all telemetry went offline.

The wellhead was attacked and disabled by a pair of giant squid.
Now check out this article from National Geographic (thanks to Karen Fernandez for the link), paying special attention to the embedded video.

I miss the seabed. I want to go back.

I am definitely working on the wrong book.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Living Dead

Meet Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, the bacterium that does it all: fix carbon, fix nitrogen, synthesize all essential amino acids, locomote — an organism that can exist totally independent of other life. It doesn't even need the sun. This fucker basically lives on sulfur, rock, and electrons*.

It's an obligate anaerobe, without even the most rudimentary oxygen resistance. A bug like βehemoth would kick its ass throughout most of the terrestrial biosphere (its natural digs are a couple of kilometers down in the crust, where no O2 has poked its corrosive little head for at least three million years). But that's not likely to be any kind of drawback out in space, and various talking heads are already nattering excitedly about the prospect of something just like this hanging out on Mars, or on the Saturnian moons.

It is cool. It is, quite literally, a complete ecosystem bundled into a single species, a biosphere crammed into two-and-a-half megabytes and a crunchy shell. Astrobiologists the world over have been creaming their genes for a week now. It's such a science-fictional little beast that its very name was lifted from a Jules Verne novel— but what really sticks in my mind about this little Swiss-army knife is a feature that's actually pretty common down there.

If it's anything like other deep-rock dwellers, D. audaxviator reproduces very slowly, taking centuries or even millennia to double in numbers. It's a consequence of nutrient limitation, but might we be looking at a kind of incipient immortality here? The textbooks tell us that one of the defining characteristics of life is reproduction. But if you think of life as the propagation of organized information into the future — the persistence of signal, rather than merely its proliferation — then reproduction is really just a workaround. The chassis that carries the information wears out, and must be replaced.

It doesn't take much, here at the dawn of Synthetic Biology, to imagine an organism with unlimited self-repair capabilities; something that can keep its telomeres nice and long, which sweeps away all those nasty free radicals and picks up the broken bottles in their wake, which replaces an endless succession of disposable Swatches with a solid gold Rolex which can hang in there for a billion years or more. Hell, you could even postulate some kind of Lamarckian autoedit option on the genes, so the organism can adapt to new environments. Or you could just limit your organism to extremely stable environments that don't require ongoing adaptation. Interstellar space, for example. Or deep in a planetary lithosphere. In some ways, this could be a superior strategy to conventional breeding; at least you wouldn't have to worry about population explosions.

I wonder if, somewhere down there, D. audaxviator or something like it has given up on reproduction entirely. Maybe it keeps the machinery around as a kind of legacy app that no one uses any more and just ticks slowly onwards, buried beneath all that insulating and protective rock, unto the very end of the planet.

The textbooks would call it dead. I'd suggest our definitions may need an upgrade.

*Of course, the fact that it can live independently doesn't mean that it evolved independently. A bunch of its genes have been cadged from Archae via lateral transfer. Its genes also contain anti-viral countermeasures; whether it siphoned those off incidentally from donor species or actually uses them to guard against parasitic code, there's obviously a history of contact with other life in this bug's family tree.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Scramblers in the Shallows, Light in the Deeps

This is a short, stunning clip that starts with deep-sea glowsticks and segues to shallow-water cephalopods. The first part gives you a taste of Beebe Station; the second (including the Two-Faced Squid!) demonstrates some camo tricks that make scramblers look like amateurs.

No new information here, but beautiful. Try to ignore the creationist idiot in the comments.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Benthic Baptisms

So it begins (actually continues, but let's not let accuracy get in the way of a good cliché): the race to exploit the deep sea. A couple of choice quotes:
"deep sea mining ... has the potential to explode ... The hotspots are ocean floor geysers known as hydrothermal vents ...

"...we know almost nothing about the microbial life or their ecology."

So, yeah. Bring on βehemoth! Let's get this apocalypse on the road!

And — in a nice bit of timing — one Bernd Kronsbein has just pointed me to the Amazon page for the upcoming German edition of Starfish (which evidently translates does not after all translate as Abgrund, but as another word entirely!). The cover steers away from the rifter-collage design that Bruce Jensen so effectively rendered for the Tor editions, instead giving face time to the more conventional preshmesh armour that Yves Scanlon lumbered around in for a couple of chapters:

I'm guessing they were looking for something a bit more space-suity, to maintain thematic consistency with their Blindflug cover. Anyway, I like it.

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