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Microbial Solutions

Posted on Fri Apr 21st, 2023 @ 1:17pm by Lieutenant JG Camille Lévesque PhD & Lieutenant JG Vespa Kale

Mission: Cost of Survival
Location: Upper module science labs; Chitlari Station

Camille Lévesque was back aboard the Chitlari station, having worked extensively with her team back on the Pennsylvania. The main science lab’s various work stations, staffed by a well educated and experienced crew, had spent the previous several hours busy with finding the perfect solution for the Chitlari soil problem.

Dozens of samples of soil and roots had been taken and brought back to the ship (kept in Biosafety Level 3, as a precaution). Prokaryote-grade gene resequencers were used to modify microbes of the genera Bacillus, Pseudomonas, and Streptomyces — all of which completely non-pathogenic, harmless even in immunocompromised individuals — into something suitable for their purposes.

The Science team had identified something ideal in the root samples: a handful of oligosaccharides that their crop plants (and, Camille assumed, most if not all plants on their homeworld) produced and shed in their roots. This was what they were looking for. From there, it wasn’t difficult to modify their bacterial creations to use these small sugar chains as their primary food source. Furthermore, there was enough variety in the kinds of oligosaccharides produced by their different crop plants that they could conceivably engineer their bacteria to improve the soil in different ways, depending on what was being grown. Some would be more effective at nitrogen fixation, turning atmospheric N2 and O2 into the plant-friendly NO3. Others would be better at breaking down dead plant cells and recycling their base components, giving the crops access to phosphorus and potassium as well as other critical nutrients. Others still might serve as food for the other microscopic life that lived in the soil and made agriculture possible, like this ecosystem’s equivalent of fungi and nematodes, which facilitated nutrient absorption and soil oxygenation.

Obviously they could not run any real tests. The amount of time needed to evaluate the effectiveness of their work would be measured in months and years. But the computer simulations suggested it would work. At best, they found a sustainable solution for the agricultural problems facing the Chitlari refugees, if implemented carefully over the course of the next five-to-ten years. At worst, they will have done no harm. But Camille found the worst case scenario unlikely.

One crucial step to Camille was that of the second opinion. She sat down for two hours with Vespa, and while it was sometimes hard to follow the Dalacari as her voice switched from one body to the other, it was clear that her Assistant Chief agreed with the plan and had made several suggestions to make it even more effective and likelier to succeed. Vespa had a presentation within minutes, detailing various angles of approach and possible avenues of termination. Protein leaks, unraveling RNA chains, Vespa's concepts would go a long way towards making strides in the project. Primary among her concerns is that there wasn't enough time to really see the results through, but the Dalacari said the same thing every time: Time is a luxury we don't have.

And now, Camille was back in the station’s farm, working with them on an implementation plan which would best suit their needs. In her bag were thirty small vials, each containing one of three different genetically modified bacterial strains. Harmless, and freeze-dried for long term storage without refrigeration, the first year all three strains would need to be stirred into their soil, along with a supplement of replicated dead leaves, roots, and other detritus which would form the basis of compost. The farm would then need to be divided into four, with three quarters growing three different crops and the fourth left empty. The next season, the crops would change, and a different quarter left unused, with supplements of only the most suitable bacteria stirred into the relevant quarter. The dead leavings of the consumed plants would be stirred in as well.

Camille expected that, if done properly, the bacteria in the soil would be self-sustaining within six growing seasons (however the station measured that). They probably wouldn’t need to use the rest of the vials, but had them anyway in case of emergencies. The bacteria would also not survive out of soil, as at least some of the food they required came from the plants. Even if they tracked soil into another Class M environment, it would be almost impossible for those bacteria to thrive.

The Chitlari had a solution to their food crisis. It might work. It might not. There might be factors that they couldn't have predicted which would slow their progress or prevent success entirely. They wouldn't know for sure for many months, possibly years. They really did need to conduct more tests but as Vespa had put it over and over again, time was a luxury they didn't have.

Proud of the work she and her team had done, Camille was finally able to take a breath and relax. She sat with TamGon-Sen, the station's chief scientist, and offered her a snack, a delicacy from her homeland. It had been replicated and kept in a temperature-controlled container before Camille beamed over. She opened the container revealing a bottle of a specialized form of maple syrup, boiled down past the point of syrup but not quite to the point of being butter.

Also in the container was a cubic foot of snow.

Camille opened the bottle and poured two lines of the maple syrup onto the snow. She then took a small stick and showed her companion how to place it into the syrup and slowly roll it into a ball by rotating the stick. The result was a goopy sphere of semi-solid maple sugary goodness at the end of a handy stick. "A gift from my homeland," she'd told TamGon-Sen.

Seeing the joy on her companion's face, her reaction to the sweet treat -- probably not experienced for years -- was enough to make Camille beam with joy. She ordered Ops to replicate more, so the station's children could have a treat too, and sat with TamGon-Sen, enjoying the moment for what it was: the opportunity to do some good in a bad situation and alleviate some suffering.


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