Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Last night R-Spec (Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans) held its monthly meeting. We had a speaker, microbiologist Martin Zand, who spoke on "Biodefense" and was absolutely fascinating. He slanted his talk toward practical knowledge for SF writers who want to include weaponized genemods in their stories.

He talked about which pathogens best lend themselves to modification (Ebola, for instance, has a very small genome and produces only eight proteins, which means there's just not room enough in the cell to fit a lot of extra, genetically engineered stuff.) Martin covered the assembly of viruses using sequencing data and "off-the-shelf" sections of DNA. He talked about the origins and spread of epidemics. I hadn't known that the natural host for influenza was an Asian species of duck, and that the way vaccine makers guess at which strains of flu will hit in a given winter is by examining ducks in late summer.

The talk also covered what you need for a rogue genemod lab to weaponize pathogens: off-the-rack equipment, experienced talent, and no more than a few million dollars. What the Russians may or may not have been doing in this regard was discussed, including a recommendation for Ken Alibek's scary book BIOHAZARD (which I have read -- it's horrifying). Martin finished with an overview of surveillance techniques used to spot and track epidemics so that appropriate measures can be taken, including quarantine if necessary.

And while we're on DNA (so to speak) check out Drew Berry's animations of how DNA, RNA, and ribosomes do their work. No less a personage than Eric Drexler has praised these short films as the best he's seen of its type. You can access them through Drexler's website at (Thank you, Frank Glover, for pointing me to this). The animations duplicate real time for processes -- and the speed with which cellular machinery works!

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