All you science junkies out there…this chapter is for you! Errors in scientific process or basic DNA facts are welcomed to be brought to my attention!
After a long, tedious evening of running the rest of the slide drives and a tempestuous night of tossing and turning in bed, Mara was back in her lab the next morning, the gleaming gray walls seeming to close in on her as she sat in front of her computer, clutching her coffee, willing herself to open up the test files for the results of the slide drive DNA sequencing. As much as she had tried to minimize the extent of the problem in her mind, Mara could not seem to shake the feeling of dread associated with her discovery; however, now she knew it was time to face the facts, literally. She reached out and tapped the enter key on the keyboard with more force than was necessary, and the results of the tests slowly loaded up in a queue in the dialog box on the computer screen. Wearily, Mara looked on with a growing sense of resignation as all the test files loaded one by one and each flashed red with the same “ERROR: GENETIC MUTATION STRAND” warning that she had seen on her phone Tuesday.
She opened the first report. At the top of the computer screen was an information section containing details about the specimen. All citizens had to have their blood registered—meaning that their individual DNA acquired via their blood was linked to personal information stored in a database—so if you had the specimen of blood, you could get details about the individual if you had the proper clearance. Mara’s computer system had an educational clearance level, so the information she could see from the blood specimens was comparably basic to what a government official of top clearance could see; an educational clearance allowed for basic physical traits to be shown such as age, gender, race, height and weight. The first report Mara pulled up was headed with the information: “Age: 45, Gender: Male, Height: 6’1”, Weight: 180 lbs.” Very good, right down the middle of the line in all respects—no variables are too extreme, Mara thought, her mind switching into analytical mode as it quickly took in the stats and then moved down to the actual DNA sequencing report; the long columns of seemingly random series of letters were what truly interested her.
The DNA sequencing consisted of columns of the same four letters—A, T, C, and G—grouped into units of three. The report was pages and pages long and swam with the groups of letters; to any other student, it would appear a laughable amount of gibberish, but to Mara, it was the very core stuff of her passion. The genetic code was easily enough explained; the letters A, T, C and G were abbreviations for the nucleotides adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). The nucleotides were essentially the bonds that held together the double helix structure of DNA. Mara loved the intricate yet simple puzzle of the DNA structure—the nucleotides linked in the middle of the double helix, but they would not just link with any other of the nucleotide bases; adenine would only link with thymine and cytosine only with guanine. Therein lay the beauty and the danger of the structure; since only certain nucleotides could connect to produce a protein, genetic engineers such as Mara could more easily isolate, identify and direct the production of proteins and their effect on the cells of the human body. The darker side of the matching of nucleotides was the danger of a mutation such as Mara faced; if a mutation occurred and the correct nucleotides did not match up, deleterious effects—including the shutdown of the entire cell—could be the result.
The first page of the report was as Mara expected—a clean and tidy image where C matched with G and A was always squared away with T. There were no unexpected gaps in the sequence, and the use of Meditrinum was evident in the elegant structuring of the DNA sequence. It was a textbook example of genetic code, like the kind Mara had studied in understudy school, and it brought back warm memories to Mara of when she had used an old-fashioned electrophoresis machine to extract her first DNA sequence manually many years ago. However, the reporting on the screen now was much more advanced than the blurry vision on the electrophoresis gel; the letters were clear and sharp, and—most importantly—Mara had the ability to see the projected gene sequence for the next five years.
The first page of the report was just the current state of the DNA. Obviously, the Meditrinum was doing its job with flying colors—there were no mutations present. On each of the subsequent pages would be the report for the next year into the future. Mara scrolled through to the second page—one year from the present—the genes were still in good order, perhaps a harmless silent point mutation or some other very minor mutation that could be harmful if found in an untreated individual, but would surely be smoothed away with ease by the Meditrinum. I need to comb through these reports with intense scrutiny, Mara thought, all these little mutations could be clues to a developing larger problem like Travers told me about. The computer program highlighted all potential mutations in flashing red, but Mara decided once she had done an initial glance-over to each report, she would print them out and meticulously annotate each projected mutation—no matter how small. Year one for this 45 year-old male sample contained a mere two of these small imperfections. Finger on the small silver cordless mouse, Mara scrolled down through year two, and saw from initial glance that once again no major mutations were present, only a couple red flashes.
Year three was a different story. Mara’s hand dropped from the mouse and unconsciously crept slowly up to her mouth where she began to gnaw at her thumbnail—a habit she had rid herself of years ago—she could feel her face going white and a hot sweat break out all over her body under the suddenly too heavy white lab coat. What she saw on the screen was pure chaos—she had never seen anything like it before. The first triplet of the DNA sequence, ATG, was still shown on the computer screen in calm, still black print, but below that, every nucleotide triplet flashed red, and there were large gaps in the sequence—known to Mara as introns, blank spaces in the genetic code—as if someone had violently torn away large chunks of the specimen’s DNA. The remaining nucleotides were hopelessly jumbled and many nucleotide triplets had been ripped apart by the gaping introns. It had to be a hostile takeover mutation—it certainly looked hostile to Mara. Something had taken those neat, orderly lines of carefully perfected sequencing and minced them to this rubble of genetic destruction.
Tremblingly, Mara moved her hand back to the mouse and scrolled down. What she saw brought her absolutely no reassurance—the next two pages of the report for years four and five were utterly blank. The sweat on Mara’s body turned cold; she pushed her chair back from the desk and stared at the computer screen blankly. The mutation was everything she had dreaded, yet worse than anything she expected to find. Drawing a deep breath, she rolled forward and switched to another report. Slowly, methodically, she went through the remaining of the ten reports—80 year old woman, 37 year old woman, 51 year old man, 18 year old girl, 22 year old woman, 70 year old man, 11 year old boy, 29 year old man, even a 4 year old boy—they were all the same. Year three showed massive genetic mutation, then years four and five were chillingly blank.
You need to think of the facts, Mara. First of all, you have the bleakly positive note that you have until three years from now to solve this. You are a scientist with a deadline, that’s all. And when the deadline is met, the payoff will be enormous. Mara trained her mind to this line of thought as she pressed “Print All” in the reports dialog box. As the printer to her right hummed to life churning out the fatal prognosis reports, Mara thought briefly about her blood in the slide drive in the refrigerator. She tried to imagine how she would feel seeing her future genetic code in shambles in front of her, and decided she wasn’t ready to take that step. However, innately she knew it was a step she absolutely needed to take if she was to make headway on this cure, yet still keep her project a secret. If she was trying new methods to fix the mutation, she would need to test these methods on a sample—her ten specimens she had just run reports on would not last forever, and the experiments would be more accurate if they had a control subject. Mara would end up having to be that control once the samples ran out, that she knew. But for now, she needed to do further analysis on the freshly printed reports. Walking over to the printer, she collected the stack of papers, stapled them and sheathed them in a file folder— the walls of her lab felt constrictive, and she needed to be back in her apartment right now. As she stuffed the folder in her briefcase and doffed her lab coat, an errant thought wandered into her mind, and she shook her head amazed and somewhat disgusted at the fact that, despite the cataclysmic discovery of that afternoon, the distracting thought of taking Runey up on his offer for company could still weave its way into her mind.