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Dr. Carl Peters prided himself on being unconventional. He stood out among the eccentric, doddering, forgetful professors of his faculty, who grimaced at the prints of Dalí, Tesla, and George Best that decorated his office, and was happy to. He knew he could not count any of them as friends. Dr. Peters didn’t mind. He knew most of the truly great scientific discoveries were made by outsiders; the only way to shift the paradigm was to reject it in the first place.
His only real friend on the staff was his assistant, Jim Glover, a PhD candidate helping him with his research. His wife regularly joked she was jealous of Jim, who spent more time with her husband than she did, but beneath the teasing Dr. Peters suspected she harbored real resentment.
“Why don’t you move into the private sector?” his wife asked, when he came home from work on time for once and complained that his grants were being cut again. They’d had this conversation, in one form or another, frequently—ever since she had spotted her dream summerhouse on a realtor’s webpage.
“It’s always the same bullshit choice,” he said. “Fire Jim and scale back my work, or take the hit in my own salary. I’m sick of it.”
She barely looked at him. “I hear there’s lots of money in the private sector.”
They had stopped talking with each other years ago. Now they just talked at each other.
Dr. Peters turned up the volume on the TV. A special report showed an interview with a team of medical researchers, who were announcing that animals fed exclusively on genetically modified foods were six times more likely to develop cancers than those given organic feed. Dr. Peters shook his head, absorbed. He didn’t even notice his wife leave the room.
His phone rang; it was Jim. “Are you watching this?”
“I just switched it on. I can’t believe it.”
“They’ll be throwing money at us now to fix it. Anyway, I’ll let you get back to it. I just wanted to check.”
Dr. Peters put down the phone and switched over to the business channel. It predicted plummeting shares in big GM producers, coupled with surging food prices. He switched the TV off and went into his study to think.
Dr. Peters had jumped at the chance to work at the university—not because they paid the most or had the best facilities (they didn’t), but rather to live in a city with a grid-system, allowing endless ways to walk from one point to another without getting bored. Novelty was important to him—new things, new ideas, new ways of looking at old, intractable problems.
He first became interested in genetic modification because it was a radical way of solving an age-old problem: the price and availability of food. Since the Great Economic Collapse a few years back, commodity prices had been rising, helped in part by extreme weather conditions. GM food finally took off. People still had concerns, but when GM food became considerably cheaper their concerns seemed to matter less. This news, however, changed everything. Lost in thought, Dr. Peters did not even hear his wife’s car reverse out of the driveway.
Dr. Peters got more money to solve the GM food problem, as expected, but the following year was still a frustrating one. He had been an advocate for GM food, and still saw an important future for it if these problems could be resolved, but he didn’t have the medical background to build on the cancer research, although he understood enough to guess that tampering with cell structures was having unintended consequences.
Genetic modification was a complex process, but Dr. Peters knew that the root cause of the problem would likely be the foreign DNA that was being inserted into the host. He suspected the answer lay in the transfection process.
While walking to and from the university, always by a different route, he struggled with the problem again and again. As he did so, he noticed the city changing around him. Vegan cafés and bakeries were opening on every corner. The meat trade had been hit hard—steakhouses and burger joints were closing down. More and more people became vegetarian. Each week another company was forced to admit their products were not—as advertised—GM-free. Farmers’ markets were springing up in every park and square across the country. Around the nation, people were fastidiously checking the organic claims of every product. Even so, Dr. Peters didn’t find any of these developments threatening. Change was good, he thought; it created opportunities.
His wife saw things differently, and their marriage suffered. He knew it was his fault. The fanaticism he applied to his work left little room for anything else. He was aware of that, but did nothing about it, so he figured he deserved whatever came his way.
The day after his wife left him, Dr. Peters was in the lab as usual. He was relieved, in a way. He had disappointed his wife for the last time. Although sad, on some level, that it had come to this, his obsession with his research allowed him to ignore his emotions.
“My wife left me. Now I’ll be able to spend more time here,” he told Jim, just like that, as soon as he came to work. Cold. Matter-of-fact.
Jim did not seem surprised. After an awkward silence, Jim attempted to change the subject by showing Dr. Peters a small handheld Geiger counter he bought off the internet.
“Really,” said Dr. Peters, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me. See if you can pull up the chart from yesterday, I’m going to begin the transfection this morning.”
“Do you want the biolistic gun?” asked Jim. “I don’t think we have any cartridges prepared.”
“No. I’m going to do this one manually.” Dr. Peters pulled the Eppendorf tube and the tissue culture flask from the incubator. The first contained the host cell, the second, the desired gene. Under his specialized optical microscope, Dr. Peters injected the gene into the host cell membrane with a glass micropipette.
A squawk surprised him from behind. He dropped the pipette, the glass shattering into tiny fragments on the polished concrete floor.
“What the hell was that?” Jim rushed out of the office, which was separated from the lab by a glass door.
“I don’t know, but it came from behind me somewhere.”
They both peered along the workbench. “The Geiger counter!”
“No way,” said Jim, “I mean—”
“—don’t say anything. Let’s do another. This time I want you right beside me, holding that thing.”
It was confirmed: a short burst of radiation occurred at the moment the transfection process began. It didn’t make any sense. Radiation came from radioactive isotopes and while all living things had trace amounts, the numbers the Geiger counter produced were way off.
“I don’t know.” Jim frowned. “There’s something not right about this. Maybe it’s coming from the lab downstairs. Perhaps some of their machines are leaking radiation.”
“Impossible! They have all sorts of monitoring systems down there. Besides, the Geiger counter only picked it up when we began the transfection.”
Jim shook his head. There was no plausible scientific explanation for what they had witnessed. A burst of radiation could trigger mutations, which could be the cause of increased cancer rates. But what was causing the radiation bursts? Dr. Peters made Jim swear to keep this quiet, then went for a short walk to clear his head, murmuring the same thing over and over: “This is huge.”