Wednesday, December 17, 2008

One Cell in the Sea

a science fiction short story

Michael Nelik had always been interested in science. For as long as he could remember he was always trying to figure out why things worked. He had grown up in a small rural town in Virginia. As there was not much to do, he spent most of his childhood reading and playing outside with his friends. He was quite shy growing up, yet those who were close to him realized he had a quiet ambition for learning that most lacked. Eventually, this ambition moved him to the West coast, where he studied Marine Biology at Stanford. His graduate work and love for the ocean led him to study the biodiversity of Aurelia aurita, the common jellyfish. When it came time to settle down, he knew he would continue his research on jellyfish at Stanford. What he did not know—what he could not possibly have known—was that his love for this marine organism would almost kill him.

“You have a telephone call on line three, Dr. Nelik.” It had been a long day in the lab, and Michael was in no mood to answer the phone. It was probably his girlfriend, Cara, wanting to know when he would be home. He loved his girlfriend deeply, but sometimes she just didn’t understand that his job required long, tiresome hours. They had met about a year ago through a mutual friend, and while the past year had been amazing, recently he found himself annoyed with her. He couldn’t really explain it. Perhaps it was because she was so vastly different from him. Her love for science only went so far and she knew little about his research with the jellyfish. He had invited her a couple of times to come out on the boat with him while he collected specimens, yet she had always declined. She had mentioned once that the transparent creatures scared her—when she was younger one had stung her in the ocean. When she told him this story, he had chuckled quietly; he knew that those types of jellyfish were harmless. Yes, if you came into contact with their tentacles you may receive a nasty sting, but it was nothing a little vinegar couldn’t fix.
“Dr. Nelik, the call is kind of important!” His coworker, Shirley, interrupted him from his thoughts. Michael picked up the phone. “Hello.” “Hi, Dr. Nelik?” “This is him, may I ask who is speaking?” “Yes, of course. My name is Dr. Jim Palo. I work for a biodiversity station in Sydney, Australia. We have heard quite a lot about your research concerning jellyfish. Are you aware of what has been happening lately off the coast of Sydney?” “No, actually I am not..”—“I don’t have time to really explain,” interrupted Dr. Palo, “but basically a large number of jelly fish have died recently and we need your help to discover why. There isn’t much time, and quite frankly we need to know now if you would be willing to fly over. You would have to leave early tomorrow morning. All expenses will be paid for of course and all of the necessary equipment is here. Are you interested?” “Well, Dr. Palo I don’t—
“Dr. Nalik, it’s your girlfriend!” Shirley shouted. “She wants to know when you’ll be home. What should I tell her?” Michael thought about this for a second. “Shirley, tell her not for while. I’m going to Australia.”


Dr. Palo was surprised. He thought for sure Dr. Nelik would not be coming. In fact he thought Michael had started to say that he wasn’t going to come. But then, out of no where he had told him he would see him the next day. No questions asked. Dr. Palo thought that was a little strange, but he didn’t have to time to reason why this man would be flying halfway across the world to help him with a problem he knew nothing about. He had much more important things to worry about—like why the jellyfish were dying off so quickly and why there had been an increase in the number of stings from Australia’s largest box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri
. While these jellyfish were known for their deadly stings, he hadn’t mentioned this second part to Dr. Nelik. He didn’t think the two cases were related. Besides, the one man that had died last week from the sting was in his late sixties. The pain of the sting had probably caused a heart attack, which had led to his death. He was also wearing a stinger suit—Dr. Palo had never known the sting of the box jellyfish to penetrate the suit in all his years of studying them.


Michael could not wait to get off the plane. In his years of studying jellyfish he had never been to Australia and was very excited to learn more about the types of species that inhibited the strange land. He was taken back when Dr. Palo had asked him to help—he wasn’t sure how he could be of service. But then again, he really didn’t know the extent of the problem. He assumed the jellyfish were dying off because of a lack of food. He knew that in the past years the ozone layer above Australia had been deteriorating and that the sun’s strong UV rays had been penetrating the earth’s atmosphere. While most knew of the human implications, few knew about the consequences the UV rays could have on marine life. The sun is a crucial part of the food chain in the ocean. Without it, primary production stops and with no primary production marine life will essentially cease. It is perhaps obvious that without sunlight, primary producers cannot carry out photosynthesis. Yet, if the light is too strong, the photosynthetic systems of producers, such as plankton, can also suffer. He figured that the levels of plankton would directly correlate with the number of common jellyfish in the ocean because plankton is a major source of food for the creatures. He hoped he was right and that somehow his insight could help Dr. Palo.

About fifteen hours later, Michael landed in Australia. He was met by a taller, older man who introduced himself as Dr. Palo. Dr. Palo looked worried and this concerned Michael. Australians weren’t normally ones to worry. Was there more to this story then Dr. Palo was telling him? Michael didn’t have time to answer his own question.Dr. Palo shook Michael’s hand firmly. “Welcome to Australia, mate. I hope your flight wasn’t too bad.”“It was a little longer then I would have liked, but otherwise it was fine.”
“I know you’re probably tired, but I would like to fill you in on the recent situation with the jellyfish. We have a long day tomorrow and I want to get you up to speed as quickly as possible.”
Michael listened intently while Dr. Palo told him about the recent deaths of the jellyfish. “Dr. Palo, have you considered that the deaths of the jellyfish may be related to a decrease in the number of plankton in the ocean?”

Dr. Palo sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, Michael. My colleagues and I have already tested that theory. We have tested primary production through satellite imaging, and unfortunately the levels of plankton have not decreased in the areas where the jellyfish have been dying. Besides, the jellyfish have only just begun to die. If the deaths were related to the plankton in the ocean, we would have seen a decrease in the species over years, not a couple of weeks.”

“That’s very true,” Michael replied. He was angry at himself for not thinking of this before. If the deaths of the jellyfish were related to the plankton, of course they wouldn’t be dying off just now.
“We hope that you can help us Michael. We figured that with your expertise on the creatures we may be able to put our heads together and come up with a solution before it’s too late. There is also one more thing. I didn’t mention this to you over the phone because I didn’t think it was that important. But since I’ve called you more human casualties have occurred—“More casualties?!” Michael couldn’t help but interrupt. What was this guy talking about?

“Give me a chance to explain, mate. Recently lifeguards have been reporting deaths of beachgoers that have been stung by jellyfish. At first we thought it was the box jellyfish.”
Michael was familiar with these creatures. While he had never seen one himself, he knew about their lethal stings and prevalence in Australia. He didn’t think the deaths were that common though.
“What’s unusual is that all of the deaths occurred in people who had stinger suits on. The nematocysts (the stinging cells in the jelly fish’s tentacles) shouldn’t have gotten through the suits. What’s even weirder is that some locals who saw one of the stings reported that it was not a box jellyfish that stung one of the victims. He claimed it was a common jellyfish.”

Michael thought about this for a moment. “Dr. Palo, that’s impossible. You know as well as I do that the nematocysts are not concentrated enough in the tentacles of the common jellyfish to cause death, much less excruciating pain.”
“I know Michael, that’s why I’m concerned. Lucky for us, the lifeguard that was present that day was able to collect some of the tentacles. It reached our lab yesterday and I was hoping that you and I could have a look at it tomorrow.”
“That sounds good Dr. Palo but I don’t see how that would help. I think we are wasting our time. We should be going out into the ocean to collect some of the dying jellyfish. I think we will find our answer there, not in some tentacle that may or may not belong to the common jellyfish.”
Dr. Palo sighed heavily. “I know Michael, but let’s humor these people. My boss wants us to check into every possibility. Besides, the last thing we want is this getting out of hand. If the media gets a hold of this, the public will begin to panic.”
“Very true,” Michael said.
The two caught a cab to Michael’s hotel and Dr. Palo wished him goodnight. “See you bright and early tomorrow morning Michael.”
“Goodnight Dr. Palo.”As jetlagged as Michael was, he could not sleep that night. He had a feeling that he was going to be in Australia for much longer that he anticipated.


The next day Dr. Palo picked Michael up from the hotel and the two headed to the biodiversity station in Sydney. When they got there they were greeted by one of Dr. Palo’s lab technicians. He introduced himself as Rob, and the three headed to retrieve the sample.
“I’m glad you two are finally here,” Rob explained. “We had two more reports last night while you were picking up Dr. Nelik from the airport. This time it was two young kids that died from the stings. Healthy as ever, too.”
“Let me guess,” Dr. Palo said. “They were wearing stinger suits.”
“You guessed it.” Rob opened a freezer and pulled out the preserved tentacles. No longer attached to the body of the jellyfish, the tentacles were harmless. He began slicing the tentacles into thin pieces and prepared a slide from them.
“While Rob is preparing the slide, let’s have a look at the cells of a box jellyfish, Michael.” Dr. Palo put a slide under the electron microscope. He pointed out the nematocysts. “See how concentrated they are?” “The more concentrated, the more poison. And the more poison, the worse the sting.” Michael understood. He was anxious to see the prepared slide from the tentacle found at the beach. He was sure it would show a normal concentration of nematocysts.
Rob was finally done preparing the slide. He placed it under the microscope and let out a large gasp. “Dr. Palo, your never going to believe this, but the concentration of nematocysts is about equal to that of the box jellyfish.”
“So then it was a box jellyfish after all,” Dr. Palo exclaimed. “What’s the problem then Rob? Now we can focus on what is killing those common jellyfish out in the ocean.”
“No, Dr. Palo, you don’t understand. The nematocyst concentration is equal, but the tentacles are that of a common jellyfish.”
“Let me see that Rob! Are you sure?” Dr. Palo brought the specimen into focus and slowly stepped backwards. “Michael you better have a look at this.”

Michael nervously looked into the scope. Rob and Dr. Palo were right. What he was looking at was clearly the tentacles of a common jellyfish with an extremely high level of nematocysts. Maybe this was what was causing the deaths in the common jellyfish. “Dr. Palo, maybe this is why the jellyfish are dying off. They probably can’t handle this level of nematocysts.”
“Michael, you’re probably right. But what is causing the high levels of nematocysts?” Michael didn’t know. But he did know one thing. They had to stop people from swimming immediately. The common jellyfish swim in the warm waters of Australia during the summer months. And if people didn’t
get off the beach soon, there was going to be a problem. Most people were not afraid of the common jellyfish, especially if they had stinger suits on. This apparently was no ordinary jellyfish, however.

Dr. Palo called the coastguard immediately. “Hi. Yes, this is Dr. Palo from the biodiversity station in Sydney. I need you to stop all people from swimming off the coast of Sydney. We’ve discovered what’s been causing the stings of the victims.”“The box jellyfish?”
“No. Much worse, the common jellyfish.” Dr. Palo heard a click. He wasn’t surprised. The news had shocked him too. He was glad he had asked Michael to help. The three of them had to discover what was causing the rapid multiplication of nematocysts before it was too late. He wasn’t going to have most of Sydney die. Not on his watch.


Michael wanted to have one more look at the tentacles before they went out in the ocean to collect more specimens. As he looked more carefully he noticed a thin filamentous structure sticking out from one of the cnidocytes, the cells that contain the nematocyst. He had missed it before because he was looking at the concentration levels. He panned over to another section of the slide and saw more of these filamentous structures. He started to feel sick to his stomach. He was no expert in microbiology, but the little he did remember from his graduate courses all came flooding back. He soon realized that he was looking at some sort of virus. He called Rob and Dr. Palo over. “Hey guys, come look at this again. I think I’ve found something interesting.” Rob and Dr. Palo looked at the slide. They too saw what Michael had just seen and all looked at each other with knowing glances. They were in way over their heads and knew it. It was time to call in a virologist.


Her name was Toni. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty four. “Great,” Dr. Palo mumbled. She could be my grandchild—how is she supposed to help us discover what caused this virus in the jellyfish?” While Toni looked young and inexperienced, she moved about with a knowing presence that was wise beyond her years. She looked into the electron microscope, moving the adjustment knobs efficiently. Mumbling occasionally, she quickly made some notes. The three men stared at her, as if perhaps their staring would somehow solve this ghastly mystery. Finally, after about an hour she looked up. “I’ve got good news and bad news, guys. Good news is this virus cannot itself jump species. It doesn’t have the capability. Bad news is it is still indirectly causing deaths in humans. I have an idea of what caused the virus but I’m going to need more fresh samples to make sure. Can you guys get me more?” The three men looked at each other uneasily. They knew what they had to do.

“Well be back in a couple of hours,” Michael said. He responded quickly. He knew that if he had taken the time to think about the dangers he never would have agreed.


The three decided to wear two stinger suits and work together to find as many jellyfish as they could. Two men would collect the jellyfish while the other one would stand guard. The last thing they needed was for one of them to get stung. Michael and Dr. Palo decided that they would be the divers on this excursion. They had much more experience with jellyfish and knew how to look out for them. Rob, who mostly did work in the lab, would watch out for any sudden waves which could push the free floating jellyfish against the two men. The boat slowly approached the clear waters where common jellyfish were prevalent. There were enough that could be collected, but not an overwhelming amount.

Michael and Dr. Palo jumped into the waters. Michael jumped in first. The Australian waters felt cool against his skin. “How funny,” he thought to himself, “that the first time I swim in Australia it is to capture the common jellyfish—the same common jellyfish that I have come to love all my life, that has suddenly mutated into a deadly enemy.” He stopped quickly. Right in front of him was a jellyfish. Dr. Palo had jumped in and was now swimming towards him. Michael reached out carefully and picked up the jellyfish by his body, carefully avoiding its tentacles. He placed it in the bag and passed it to Rob back on the boat. “This isn’t so bad,” Dr. Palo thought. “I can do this.”

The two men collected the species for about twenty more minutes. They were about to head back to the boat when they heard Rob scream. “Guys get back here now! A large swarm of jellyfish are headed right for you. I don’t know where they all came from. It must have been from the strong gust of wind.” Dr. Palo and Michael began swimming rapidly. They were almost at the boat when Michael screamed. He felt the tentacle of one of the jellyfish brush up against his leg. He had just been stung…


Back at the lab, Toni was trying to figure out how the virus had gotten into the jellyfish. “Could they have eaten something that would have been carrying a virus,” she thought. “No that’s ridiculous. They mostly eat plankton. We would have known about any virus that would use plankton as its host by now. Maybe it could have been from another species in the ocean?” She couldn’t think clearly. She had tried to appear calm for the men, and it had worked. They hadn’t noticed that she was extremely nervous. She had never had to deal with something like this before.


Rob and Dr. Palo quickly pulled Michael into the boat. He was screaming loudly now and anyone that was in half a mile radius could hear him. Rob and Dr. Palo stripped off his two stinger suits and looked at his leg. “Don’t touch it!” Michael yelled. He continued screaming and looked as if he might pass out.

“Do you have any vinegar?” Dr. Palo asked Rob. Rob rummaged around. He quickly removed the cap and doused Michael’s leg. As soon as the vinegar hit Michael’s leg he passed out. The pain was just too much for him to handle. Dr. Palo and Rob drove the boat quickly back to the lab. At this point there wasn’t much they could do for Michael—they now had to find out what had caused this virus to appear in the jellyfish.


Toni was glad to see them. When she saw them carrying in Michael she felt a pang of guilt. If she hadn’t suggested they go collect more samples this poor man would not have gotten stung. She looked at his leg. Dr. Palo noticed her concerned face. “No worries, he’ll be okay. The second stinger suit saved him. He just passed out from the pain but he’ll come to. We now need to concentrate on finding what caused this virus.” Rob helped her prepare the slides and Tina began to scan them intently. While she was looking at the slides, Rob prepared some DNA samples from the cells. After looking at the slides for hours, Tina finally confirmed that her original thought about the virus was true. DNA samples from the cells also confirmed her opinion.

“Dr. Palo, I think I know what caused the virus. Let me explain. There are two types of viruses, virulent ones and temperate ones. Most know about the virulent ones. These are the ones that are always present in the lytic cycle—when they reproduce they kill their host cells. Temperate viruses don’t necessarily kill their hosts. They live most of their lives in the lysogenic phase. That is, their genome becomes associated with the genome of the host and the virus reproduces when the host does. While it does not kill its host it may change the host cells slightly.”

“I don’t understand how this is helping us Tina,” Rob stated.
“Let me finish, Rob. A temperate phage is able to switch into the lytic cycle. To put it simply the concentration of two genes, cro and cI are involved. If more of the cro gene is present the lytic cycle wins and the virus reproduces, lysing the cell. If the cI gene is more prevalent, however, the phage stays incorporated in the host genome and the lysogenic cycle continues. Another gene, called the lambda repressor is associated with the cI gene. The lambda repressor helps catalyze the incorporation of the phage into the host genome. If the lambda repressor is not present or in low levels, the virus will revert back to the lytic cycle. Now, do you want to know one of the ways the levels of the lambda repressor is lowered? By UV light…”

Dr. Palo knew exactly where Tina was going. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. It made perfect sense. Because of the holes in the ozone layer, the intensity of UV light had increased and had been damaging the DNA in the cells of the nematocysts for a long time. The jellyfish had been dying because the virus was finally taking over the cells and killing its host. The lytic cycle was prevailing and had somehow caused the levels of the nematocysts to increase. The only way to fix the situation was to fix the damaged DNA. Once the DNA was repaired the lambda repressor would increase, and the lysogenic cycle would once again prevail. No more high levels of nematocysts and no more death-causing stings. The problem had been solved.


At this point Michael had come to. He was a little disoriented but it looked like he was going to make it. “Dr. Palo, did you figure out what was causing the virus?” Michael spoke softly. Dr. Palo walked over and explained everything to Michael. “How are you going to reverse the damage to the DNA?”

“It turns out the damaged DNA was due to thymine dimers. We’re going to spray the jellyfish tomorrow morning with this new chemical that should excise the dimers. Everything is pretty much done here. I’ve updated the coastguard and let them know what’s going on. It looks like the swimmers will be able to return back to the ocean in a couple of weeks. Michael, I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I don’t know what we would have done. You risked your life out there. Australia is very grateful.”

“Thank you Dr. Palo. But it wasn’t just me. It was all of us—we did it.”
Dr. Palo smiled. “You’re right. We did, didn’t we? Well, Michael you are free to go. I’ve booked you a flight for tomorrow morning. I’m sure you’re family will be glad to have you back. And know that you are always welcomed back in Australia.”
“Thank you Dr. Palo. It has been my pleasure.”

As Michael stepped off the plane at LAX airport, he heard a familiar voice “Michael! Thank goodness you’re okay. Shirley told me you had to go to
Australia for some research and I hadn’t heard from you all week. Are you okay?” “I’m fine, dear.”

“You know,” she said, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately and I’ve decided that I want to come with you this time when you collect your specimens. I really don’t know that much about your research and I think I’m finally over my childhood fear of jellyfish. After all you’ve been working with them your whole life and nothing has ever happened.”

“Oh, Cara..,” Michael whispered. He leaned over, gave Cara a kiss on the forehead, and embraced her. As the two of them stood there hugging in the airport, Michael couldn’t help but think about all that had happened. He debated whether or not he should tell Cara. “Nah,” he thought, “she’d never believe me”. Some things are just better left unsaid.

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1 comment:

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