It all started when Jack scored on eBay a multichannel femtospectrometer from a probe that never, in the end, went to Mars. A frosty CSI-style piece of kit that isolated organic molecules in a laser trap and determined their molecular structure.
After Jack finished extolling the virtues of his new toy, Malcolm, his partner-in-many-crimes, said, “So now we’re biochemists?”
“We’re still hunting genes—this will make it much easier. See, not only can it deal with bog-standard organics, but it can also detect and characterize all kinds of weird stuff.”
“The idea being, something producing weird organic molecules must have weird genes.”
The two of them were talking on Skype, Jack in his flat in London’s Docklands, Malcolm in the basement of his mother’s row house in Philadelphia.
Jack said: “There you go. We’ve been looking for needles in haystacks. Now we have a magnet.”
Malcolm said, “What this comes down to, you want more samples.”
“I want a lot more samples.”
Although Jack and Malcolm had never met F2F, they were a tight team with a good rep on the Distributed Biology Network: gene hunters who amplified bacterial DNA from soil and water samples, shotgun sequenced it, and identified genes that weren’t in the catalogs. There were plenty of novel genes out there. Bacteria had been evolving for more than 3 billion years, exploiting every niche on Earth. So far, Jack and Malcolm had posted more than 200 sequences on DiBNet. They did it for fun, for the thrill of discovering something no one else knew, to win the kudos of their peers. They were amateurs in the purest sense. Big Science had turned out to be a luxury that the new lean, mean post-economic-collapse world couldn’t afford. Universities had devolved into degree factories; the fabulous pharaonic government and commercial projects, deploying hundreds of scientists and big-ticket equipment to map the human proteome, catalog the zoo of fundamental particles, or develop the next Ritalin or Viagra, had gone the way of the gorilla and the dodo. Science was now the preserve of dedicated amateurs like Jack and Malcolm. Jack was the hands-on guy, using money from his trust fund to buy equipment at knockdown prices; Malcolm scanned raw sequences using a customized program and also organized their gene hunts.
That’s what he did now, working his contacts. Amateur industrial archaeologists, extreme backpackers, cavers and mountaineers. People who explored dangerous and remote places and were willing to collect scrapings of dirt. Within a week a deluge of samples from all over the world began to arrive at Jack’s flat. Within a month, using novel organic molecules as markers, he and Malcolm had bagged several dozen genes—a new record.
Fame is a strange attractor. Jack began to receive all kinds of rare and odd samples, including a chip of moon rock from the Apollo 15 landing. But that wasn’t where he found the aliens. He found them in sediment collected from a hydrothermal vent, sent to him by a retired oceanographer.
“Remember the deep-sea sample with those weird amino acids?” he said to Malcolm.
“It didn’t have any weird genes,” Malcolm said.
“Exactly. We had strange amino acids but no strange genes. So I had a pal of mine look at the sample with her scanning electron microscope. It’s full of very small rods, about a hundred nanometers long. About a twentieth the size of E. coli. And they don’t have any DNA. I tried three different fluorescent tags. I think we’ve discovered some genuine nanobacteria.”
“Like in that Martian meteorite? Those turned out to be artifacts, as I recall.”