Mar 11, 2012

Vaccinia Virus

This is an image from this article; pox viruses
have surface proteins that are similar to those
of icosahedral capsids
In my last blog post I mentioned that the Exodemic novel uses smallpox as a plot element. It is possible that the smallpox virus originated from an African rodent virus that attained the ability to infect humans (see this article). As discussed by Hughes et al, the origin of Vaccinia Virus (the virus that was used to immunize people against lethal smallpox virus infection) remains a mystery. The mysterious origin of Vaccinia Virus is why I selected it as a plot device for inclusion in the science fiction novel Exodemic.

DNA viruses like Vaccinia are also good examples of nanoscale molecular devices and nanotechnology plays an important role in Exodemic. I imagine that Genesaunt technology allows for efficient introduction of DNA into human cells. Pox viruses are interesting in that they typically have a very limited host range. I imagined that the Genesaunts were able to engineer a pox virus for use in immunizing residents of the Moon against common infectious diseases on Earth. This was important so that Genesaunt agents (Observers) could work on Earth and not be killed or injured by diseases like smallpox.

Vaccinia virus has become a popular subject of research, both as a viral agent for vaccination and for other engineered uses such as targetted destruction of cancer cells. When I was writing Exodemic it was not hard to imagine that Genesaunts would make use of Vaccinia virus as a nanoscale device. Further, I could imagine that Vaccinia virus might have had some earlier human-like ape as its natural host. The Exodemic plot includes the idea that the Huaoshy have been taking apes off of Earth for millions of years.

Pox viruses have DNA coding for many proteins, and in Vaccinia about half the coded proteins seem important for the ability of the virus to replicate. Many of the other proteins might modulate the virulence of the virus and could be important for allowing Vaccinia to replicate inside human cells without causing human disease. This is the subject of on-going research (example). If we pretend that Vaccinia virus was genetically engineered by Genesaunts to safely infect humans, then we have to ask if there might be clues in the Vaccinia DNA sequence that can suggest evidence of that genetic engineering.

GRAIL image from NASA.
An important part of the Exodemic plot revolves around the need for the Genesaunts to eventually abandon their base on the Moon. When I wrote Exodemic I imagined that there would be a point in the technological development of human civilization on Earth at which it would become very difficult to hide the existence of a Genesaunt base under the surface of the Moon. We might be at that point now with the GRAIL mission searching for "masses hidden beneath the lunar surface".

It would make more sense for the Genesaunts to use their nanite technology for observations of Earth, but it is more fun to have human Observers on Earth. While Genesaunts do not have access to the Huaoshy technology for faster-than-light travel, they do use an advanced technology for faster-than-light communication. There is no way for we Earthlings with our primitive technology to intercept or detect Genesaunt communications. Our SETI attempts to detect radio signals from distant worlds are doomed to failure because it is only primitives who try to use electromagnetic waves for interstellar communication.

Besides fun, there is another reason for having Human Observers on Earth. Although the Rules of Observation forbid interference by Observers in the natural course of development of human civilization on Earth, the Huaoshy really only care that Earthlings not become aware of how Genesaunts alter the course of human affairs on Earth. Having a few Observers on Earth is part of the system by which the Huaoshy influence the course of human civilization. The Overseers are allowed to believe that the Interventionists lack the ability to visit Earth without being detected by Observers. As long as the Interventionists are not too bold, the Overseers never catch on to their tricks (such as finding a way to provide the benefits of vaccination to Earthlings).

The intervention depicted in the prelude to Exodemic is designed to come after the Genesaunts have already decided to phase out their use of the secret base under the surface of the Moon. The prelude takes place in ancient Greece when it looks like Earthlings are on the path towards science and technology. But the crafty Interventionists allow the Overseers to notice that Greek science is leaping ahead because of Interventionist meddling. The Overseers put an end to Greek science and humanity needs another 2,000 years to reach the Industrial Age. During those 2,000 years the process of phasing out Moon Base slowly continues, and by the time that Kate Renshaw is taken off of Earth, Moon Base can no longer fully staff the Earth Observation Program. This helps the Interventionists make changes to Earthly civilization that go undetected (by Overseers) for several decades.

In other stories that I have written after Exodemic, particularly Cellular Civilization, I imagine that the Observers have automated nanotechnology for detecting unusual DNA sequences on Earth and the Overseers routinely use that technology to detect genetic monkey business perpetrated by Interventionists. In Exodemic, the Interventionists are given advanced technology that allows them to elude most of the Earth Observation tools that the Overseers rely upon. For 2,000 years the Interventionists do not do much on Earth and the Overseers become lulled into a false sense of security: they let their guard down.

Overseers are part biological and partially nanorobotic artificial life forms. A typical tour of duty for an Overseer is about 1,000 years. By the time that Interventionists use Kate Renshaw as their agent, there are no active Overseers with experience intercepting Interventionist missions on Earth. The Overseers are something like the Keystone Kops of Exodemic: they remind me of the Kzin or the Klingons, always taking themselves too seriously and always being defeated. In essence, the Overseers function to prevent bumbling alterations of human civilization by soft-hearted Observers who might grow too attached to their Earthling friends. The Overseers are told that their main function is to thwart Genesaunt Interventionists, but in reality the Interventionists are always given (by the Huaoshy) slightly more advanced nanotechnology and space ships that allow them to run circles around the poor Overseers.

The image to the right is a cover from a Dean Ing novel set in the context of Niven's Man-Kzin wars. Niven imagined that Kzin females were little more than baby factories. In Exodemic, all the Observers are male and all the Overseers are female. The excuse provided for this is that the Rules of Observation call for no chance that Genesaunts on Earth might exchange genes with humans on Earth. The sperm of Observer males cannot fertilize the eggs of women on Earth. Before humans became the Observers on Earth, the humanoid ancestors of the Overseers functioned as Observers. When modern humans took over the job of on-Earth Observation, the Overseers depicted in Exodemic were already present as part of Genesaunt civilization: they were humanoid/nanobot hybrids that cannot interbreed with humans, although when they interact with humans they morph so as to take on human body form. The Overseers sometimes have to bully and intimidate Observers, so they routinely take on the form of human females and revel in the process of humiliating any Observers who get out of line and violate the Rules of Observation. Sometimes Overseers can impersonate an Earthling and trick an Observer into revealing the fact that he is a violator of the Rules of Observation.

Cover for Exodemic.
The Overseers view themselves as vastly superior to humans and have a chronic problem of being bored with the mundane tasks that they typically perform on a daily basis. The Overseers have long ago abandoned sexual reproduction. They reproduce synthetically by a sophisticated engineering process that involves cleansing chromosomes of genetic defects and updating their nanorobotic components to the latest software versions. The biological core of an Overseer develops into little more than a nervous system, a minimal digestive system and a kidney. The rest of an Overseer body is composed of nanites. The Overseer nervous system does have an advanced chemosensory system and an artificially engineered chemosynthetic organ. Overseers can manufacture a large number of potent pheromones which they use as a major foundation for the complex dynamics of Overseer social interactions. Humans stationed at the Observer Base under the surface of the Moon know nothing about Overseer sociology, but there is considerable speculation.

For some stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe I have fun imagining that humans have receptors that respond to some of the Overseer pheromones. Usually the Overseers manipulate the behavior of humans by invading their bodies with nanorobotic probes. However, in some cases it is fun to depict Overseers as having the ability to manipulate human emotions with the help of pheromones. In Exodemic there is a funny scene during which an Overseer is trying to obtain important information from Judy Renshaw. They end up in bed together on a cold English night and Judy, confused by the effects of unseen nanites and pheromones later feels that she was unfairly taken advantage of. Overseers find humans repulsive, but they are willing to take on human form in order to do their police work.

The ability of Overseers to take emotional and physical control over humans reminds me of The Man Trap (see image to the right), although Overseers have no telepathic abilities. In this Star Trek episode, an alien was able to appear to Dr. McCoy in the form a woman who he had previously know and the alien was able to make McCoy believe that the alien was a human woman. Similarly, Overseers can use their nanorobotic components to morph into the form of a human and they could probably do a fairly good job of impersonating a specific human.

In Exodemic, an Overseer meets Franny and suddenly realizes that Franny is probably the daughter of an Observer (Howard Miller). The Overseer needs a sample of Franny's DNA. It takes little more than a moment of physical contact to obtain the DNA sample and within a few minutes the nanorobotic components of the Overseer's body completely sequence Franny's genome. Within the hour Franny is in outer space and starting her new life as a Genesaunt.

Collaboration: I wrote a "first draft" Exodemic several years ago. If you would like to dust the story off for some collaborative development and re-writing, let me know.

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