How a Biotech Company Almost Killed The World (With Booze)
As those of you savvy enough to read bylines know by now, my name is Robert Brockway. What you may not know is that I wrote a book called Everything is Going to Kill Everybody. Now, I don't want to overstate anything here, but I heard it wins the Pulitzer next year, reading it raises your IQ by a factor of 460 points, and I once saw it kill a guy in a bar-fight (you wouldn't have heard about that; the police covered it up because they couldn't catch it. It's really fast.)
It's a non-fiction book about the apocalypse - and while that sounds like I'm proclaiming myself a prophet, I assure you that it's all quite factual, so there's no need to burn me at the stake. Everything is Going to Kill Everybody runs down the many bizarre, frightening, and very real ways the world may soon - or already almost did - die screaming. This is a sample chapter pulled straight from the book (though we've added images and other such shiny things, because the internet is a very distracting place):
In the 1990s, A European biotech company prepared to commercially release a genetically engineered soil bacterium for use by farmers. They were operating under two very reasonable assumptions:
1. Nobody likes plant waste.
2. Everybody likes booze.
Whereas the common man might address these issues by simply not doing any plowing and opting to get plowed instead, scientists at the biotech company thought of a much more elegant solution: Engineer a bacterium that aggressively decomposes dead plant material--specifically wheat--into alcohol. And in 1990, they did exactly that. The bacterium was called Klebsiella planticola, and it nearly murdered everybody; you just don't know it yet.
What the Hell Was It?
Klebsiella planticola is of the enterobacterium family, microbes that typically reside inside the guts of mammals, but this particular strain inhabits the root systems of most terrestrial plants. Actually, every root system that's ever been tested for the presence of K. planticola has come up positive, so it is as near to a universal plant bacterium as there has ever been (you should remember that part, because it's going to come in handy later). In its pre-modified, natural form, K. planticola is partly responsible for the decomposition of all plant matter--a vital step in the natural life cycle--and it's notoriously aggressive in this role. That's why it was picked out for experimentation in the first place: Like an Old Testament God, K. planticola is both omnipresent and incredibly belligerent.
Biotech researchers saw these traits and thought they seemed perfect for an agricultural problem they were working on. Burning off dead plant material, as was the standard practice, severely pollutes the air and damages the lungs of farmers.
So What Did They Do?
What if, instead of the regular old largely useless sludge that decomposing plant material result in, we could alter that sludge into something more useful to humans, thus eliminating the desire to simply burn it away? What if we could ferment it, and turn it into an alcohol, a fuel or a hyper-efficient fertilizer? Or better yet, all three! Why not get blitzed off of it, piss it into your gas tank to power your car and then puke it up into the yard to make your garden grow?
Suddenly alcoholics are useful members of society again. Hell, they're practically heroes: brave men and women sacrificing both their livers and their dignity to bring us power, food and alcoholic-inspired confidence!
Well, that's the noble goal biotech researchers had in mind when they spliced an alcohol-producing bacterium into K. planticola. Once their product was released, farmers would simply gather the dead plant matter into buckets and let it ferment into alcohol. Alcohol that could do everything they hoped: Be distilled into gasoline, sowed as fertilizer, burned as cooking fuel or just drunk by the filthy, dirt- tasting bucketful. Their bioengineered K. planticola would create a beautiful, Eden-like garden paradise. So it was all with the intent of doing good that they engineered this microbe, but you know what they say about "the best intentions," don't you?
That's right: They inevitably result in pestilent, humanity-destroying plagues.
See, it was that fertilizer part where things got, shall we say, fucking horrifying: Once the fermentation process necessary to turn that dead plant material into alcohol occurred, the sludge left over would be rich in nitrogen and other such beneficial substances, making it an ideal fertilizer. The plan was to spread this sludge fertilizer back on the fields, thus eliminating all waste from the whole process.
What Went Wrong?
The fermentation process didn't kill the modified K. planticola--it was still there, ready to turn dead plant material into alcohol. The bigger problem? It didn't even wait until the plants were dead to start. The normal K. planticola bacterium result in a benign layer of slime on the living root systems it inhabits, but the engineered version would also be producing alcohol in this slime--with levels as high as 17 parts per million, and anything beyond one or two parts of alcohol per million is lethal to all known plant life. So the engineered K. planticola basically gives all plant life it touches severe alcohol poisoning, putting them more than 10 times over the lethal limit of fucked up. Like a frat house during pledge week, K. planticola would force all new plants it encountered to drink well beyond their reasonable limits. But unlike frat house rushes, it's not just freshman idiots who are affected, it's everybody. So maybe that analogy isn't entirely accurate: It's more like a bleak dystopian future where frat houses rule the world with a tyrannical fist, hazing and beer-bonging humanity into the grave. Because, you'll remember, K. planticola is present in all plant life.
Now those wonderful traits that made it such a good candidate for modification in the first place--its notorious aggressiveness and near omnipresence--are no longer such good things, are they? Because if there's one thing you really don't want your poison to be, it's "notoriously aggressive." And if there's one place you absolutely do not want your "notoriously aggressive poison" to be, it's "everywhere." Keep in mind that this was not a theoretical scenario; far-flung, fictional and unlikely to ever actually occur. This bacterium was going to be released; it had all of the necessary approval. It was only a matter of proper marketing and shipping at this point. It was only by virtue of a random review by an independent scientist (Dr. Elaine Ingham, a professor at Oregon State University and possibly the savior of all mankind) that it was caught in time.
How the Fuck Could This Possibly Happen?!
How did the leading biotech researchers of the day not realize that they had engineered a bacterium that would kill all plant life it touched? Did they not test it on any, you know, plants?!
Well, for all intents and purposes: No, they didn't.
See, the Environmental Protection Agency was the only overseer for all biotech releases, and their policy was to test new bacteria in sterile soil. The problem here being that the real world is not sterile; it is the antithesis of sterile. The whole point of sterility is to zap all normal, unexpected elements out of a sample environment so that the scientists can see its effects in a pure, untainted environment. They deemed the modified K. planticola to be safe in sterile soil, but apparently just totally forgot that its intended use was in the fucking dirt, which is a notoriously dirty place, isn't it?!
Luckily, Ingham and her group took it upon themselves to study the bacteria in a more realistic scenario, using normalized samples of unsterile soil and three different sample groups. There was a group absent of K. planticola entirely, a group with the normal K. planticola present and a group with the genetically modified K. planticola in it. They planted wheat seeds in all three groups, and then let it sit for a week. When they came back they found the first two groups doing fine, while all the crops from the GM sample were dead. Dead in less than a week. If released from the lab--which, I cannot stress enough, it very nearly was--the modified K. planticola would have spread worldwide in a matter of months, killing all plants it touched within a week, and turning all soil-based plant life into sweet, sweet liquor.
Like a twisted hillbilly fantasy, the world really very nearly drowned in moonshine.
Klebsiella planticola--The Gene-Altered Monster That Almost Got Away
A GE Bacterium That Could Have Killed All Plants
"Effects of Klebsiella planticola on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil." M.T. Holmes et al., Applied Soil Ecology 326:1-12, 1998
Buy Everything is Going to Kill Everybody! And read his weekly column Robert Brockway: Word Puncher.
Or, head to the Death at a Funeral caption contest to see a screen grab from Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock's controversial new ad for Oreo Double Stuff cookies.