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From the LabLit short story series

Sarah Byrne 28 July 2013

The PhD student takes another suck of her coffee through the plastic lid. It tastes horrible, like always, but she drinks it anyway

1. Eat Or Be Eaten: requiem to a sauropod

She hunches her wings close around her and stares out over the ruin of her world. She is the last of the giants.

From her clifftop perch she can see the forests dying and the sea boiling sulphurous in the dim blood-red glow that passes for sunlight now. She can hear the little furry creatures scurrying in the undergrowth, the mammals. They're surviving better: fast-growing, numerous, adaptable.

She knows they'll eat her when the end comes, if they can chew through the tough hide of her scales. She knows for sure they'll eat the tender flesh inside the eggs she's brooding on, and that thought makes her gentle herbivore's heart flip over with primal mother-rage.

But it's inevitable as the turning of the earth. She will die, and they will eat and live.

One day their descendants will trace the shape of her bones where rock and ice formed around them in their long sleep. But her like will never walk the earth again.

Adapt Or Die: a hypervariable genome goes viral

Slipstream-sliding, spinning, swept along in the plasma flow of a pulsing heartbeat, they surge through veins and capillaries, unstoppable. They slip easy through the soft cell walls, hijacking the infrastructure there to make copies of themselves. Thousands of them, tiny, perfect, sugar-protein antigens spiking from their surfaces. They burst out of the cell leaving it ruptured and dying and onwards they go.

The memory B-cells stand sentinel, grey-white and ghostly. Vaccine-primed, watching for just such intruders, for antigens they've seen before, ready to summon reinforcements.

Our brave companions plunge headlong onwards, even as the sentinels deluge them in the sticky antibodies that will debilitate them, mark them out for destruction.

There's no stopping now. No turning back, no matter what.

Then come the killer T-cells, the phagocytes. The destroyers, the eat-you-alive engulfers. The ranks of them advancing relentless; they have come to make carnage.

There's no escape. But wait…

These aren't your daddy's antigens.

Hypervariable, their genetic code mutates in an eyeblink. They're not true copies at all but each one different, so the antibodies lose their grip, the vaccine useless now. The parasites slip through, untouched, invisible, undetected until it's too late, and the flood of them overwhelms the body's defences.

And the clock ticks around another minute, and another life ends.

Publish Or Perish: a graduate student's choice

"The bone marrow is a fossil record of the antibodies produced in a person's lifetime," someone reads aloud, and the sleepy-eyed PhD student, daydreaming of dinosaurs again, blinks and looks up.

They're talking about flu vaccines. A new paper out from the US, a vast library of antibodies collected and screened. Searching for the one that will work for more than one season, more than one strain; that will grip the slippery virus where it doesn't mutate. Sounds like they found one too, with a long-armed one-handed grip that can grab deeper down where the constant regions are. To prompt the body to produce it though, and in the amounts needed, that's a different challenge, and that they haven't done.

It feels kinda hopeless sometimes.

There are other new ways of vaccinating, like those tried for HIV: bypassing the whole antibody thing and getting the body to produce the killer T-cells directly. But the difficulty is controlling the numbers and stopping them being overwhelmed when those viruses just keep on coming. Malaria's more difficult still, with its complex biology and stealthy ways.

The PhD student takes another suck of her coffee through the plastic lid. It tastes horrible, like always, but she drinks it anyway. Her mind's on other things.

Like having no results to write up: nothing for a paper or thesis. Yesterday in the lab she screwed up her cell cultures again and spilled growth medium all over the floor and people were kind about it but she knew what they were thinking really. Maybe she should never have started this whole research thing. She can feel the end coming, inexorable.

Journal-club over, she gets up and heads out, but not to the lab: down the leafy street and into the museum instead. In the vast echoing hall she stands and stares up at the huge reconstructed skeleton. You'd move slow, and have sad eyes like a cow, she thinks. Like me.

But she's thinking too about that fossil record. Of how it's not that we don't know enough, we know more than we know what to do with. The flood of data churned out every day, needing to be analysed and modelled. The biblical proportions of it; the complexity, the statistics and correlations shifting constantly with every new result.

The answer's got to be in there somewhere, she thinks, if only we can find it.

So what better job for a girl who loses track of her experiments amid dinosaur dreams but thrives on numbers and code? She stares upwards for a few more moments, then turns and strides outside, heading back onto campus. Time to change her life; it's not too late. Quit and start over.

You have to find your niche. And she's found hers. She can feel it in her bones.