By Jason P. Burnham
Did you know that the human body has fewer human cells than it does microorganisms? Fortuitously, Dr. Scientist knew that—and they will be your teacher on this journey to incorporate microbiomes into your fiction. How can you portray Dr. Scientist’s very important microbiome research in your next story? Is our scientist a force for good? For evil? Something in between? Where Dr. Scientist falls on the chaos spectrum is up to you, but for now, let’s dive in and see what they’re up to.
Dr. Scientist has been working hard in their microbiome laboratory. The microbiome refers to the microorganisms in any given environment, including a body or body part, human or non-human. Recently, Dr. Scientist has been making breakthroughs in understanding how the bacteria that live in human guts can affect our brains. Previous (real) research has shown that bacterial signaling can change what foods we crave. Is Dr. Scientist funded by a food production company? Did their research into genetic modifications of human gut bacteria result in an intestinal microbiome that makes people only want to eat food manufactured by the nefarious and rapacious Raytheon Spice Corp? Dr. Scientist has signed an NDA, so maybe your protagonist, the Intrepid Journalist, will have to be the one to uncover this diabolical money-making scheme.
Or perhaps Dr. Scientist has been working on animal microbiomes and was tasked with explaining to an unforgiving executive board why mammoths and thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) will never undergo “de-extinction.” Dr. Scientist knows that, in the real world, animals who don’t have the right bacteria living inside them are sickly and prone to infections, behavioral problems, and early death. They reluctantly tell Frankenstein Corp that, without knowing what bacteria lived inside these extinct animals, there’s no way they can return to life in any meaningfully healthy form. On the other hand, perhaps the melting Arctic has thawed a perfectly preserved specimen of Otodus megalodon locked in a fatal embrace with an ancient, fearless cetacean, both with perfectly preserved microbiomes. Call Jason Statham because Meg 3 is about to be a documentary.
Breaking news! NASA has just given Dr. Scientist an award for their groundbreaking microbiome research, which will revolutionize humanity’s ability to propagate itself onboard spaceships. Researchers had known for decades that sending sterile embryos into the vast reaches of space would be tough, especially with no humans to raise them. They knew that without the propagation of a microbiome passed down from their parents, newborns would be more susceptible to serious illness. Fortunately, Dr. Scientist performed extensive analyses to identify precisely the required bacteria and their correct proportions to sustain a human grown in an artificial womb by spaceship-based robots. However, in an alternate timeline, Dr. Scientist did not receive an award from NASA for spaceship microbiome work. Instead, they showed that the microbiome required by humans is too complex to transport to other planets. In the process of revealing this, they tell the governments of the world once again that there is no Planet B and that everything conceivable must be done to save the only planet we’ve got.
Understanding that some of the most innovative discoveries occur at the intersection of two or more disciplines, Dr. Scientist has been doing some reading. When they read that 1) the human immune system has evolved to support the presence of microorganisms that benefit us, and 2) bioluminescent animals don’t light up if they don’t have the right bacteria inside them, Dr. Scientist knew exactly what tests to run. After extensive experimentation, Dr. Scientist has discovered how to make the human immune system tolerate bioluminescent bacteria. Humans can now explore caves unfettered by the need for light sources! Plumb the depths of Europa by their body’s own light! And Dr. Scientist isn’t stopping there. So many possibilities are on the docket: UV-resistant skin, modified skin cells for armored protection, and the ability to digest parts of plants that we never thought possible. Nobel prizes await!
Dr. Scientist isn’t that different from you and me—they’ve read sensational lay press articles about the next food/supplement guaranteed to maximize longevity. Dr. Scientist has heard it all and knows most of it is hooey. After all, if something worked, everyone would be taking it. But recently, one of these articles sparked an idea. The authors reminded Dr. Scientist that there are nine essential amino acids humans must eat to survive because our bodies can’t produce them naturally. Dr. Scientist unfortunately lives in a world where not everyone has enough to eat. But through the modification of the human microbiome, Dr. Scientist has discovered they can produce each and every one of these nine essential amino acids. Food shortages will still exist but will be much less impactful. With the worsening effects of climate change on product and livestock yields, this discovery is a much-needed windfall.
Dr. Scientist has been through a lot. High highs and low lows. They have decided that in their microbiome research, they’re going to focus on something low-stakes, perhaps even fun. They know humans love cats. (Whether the cats love them back is up for debate.) Nonetheless, Dr. Scientist was watching videos of cats on catnip and recognized that a microbiome alteration could let humans experience what their cats enjoy so much. Busy in the lab, Dr. Scientist modifies the human microbiome to process the chemicals in catnip to great success. Cat owners the world over rejoice. A new social media sensation is born!
These are just some of the microbiome projects Dr. Scientist could be working on. Every new discovery unveils brave new (microbial) worlds, and there’s no telling what the future of microbiome research will reveal. Will Dr. Scientist use these untapped microscopic reservoirs for good or for evil? To heal or to harm? To save or to devastate? The choice is yours!
Jason P. Burnham loves to spend time with his wife, children, and dog. He co-edits If There’s Anyone Left, a magazine of inclusive speculative fiction with his friend C.M. Fields. The best way to reach him is via crow.