A Place for Micro in Fandom

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Grace Cabarle, VMS Undergrad

All my life, I have been a creative person. In my youth, I often was involved in theatre and music. When I came to college, I no longer had time to perform. Instead, I started to write. Constantly. Online, I found a community of other intensely creative people who encouraged me in my pursuits, praising and critiquing my work, and this soon made up for the fact that I wasn’t onstage anymore.

Fandom is a term which has only recently edged its way into the common lexicon. Many people think of fandom as people who dress up in costumes, go to conventions, and argue over minutiae in the source material. While this is certainly an aspect of it, the communities I became a part of were much more interested in exploring the source material for hidden depths and elaborating on it in new and innovative ways.

In December 2014, I watched the film Pacific Rim, a blockbuster film about people in robot suits (Jaegers) fighting aliens (Kaiju) that come out of a rift in the Pacific Ocean. As silly as it sounds, I immediately fell in love with the way that science was presented in the movie. While many of the facts in the film were hideously inaccurate, the source material went out of its way to show how valuable science and the scientists were to saving the day. I decided right there that I wanted to explore that world and expand upon the science in my writing. I was going to do as much research as I could to build around the ideas the film had given me. Ultimately, my most useful model for alien unicellular life was the Archaea.

Archaea are single-celled organisms that are very similar to bacteria. They do not have a nucleus, nor do they have specialized organelles for cellular functioning. The main difference between the Archaea and the Bacteria lies in the environments they can inhabit: Archaea are extremophiles, organisms capable of living under extreme conditions normally not conducive to life’s necessary processes. They can live in ocean vents that rise to temperatures over 100 degrees Celcius. Some are not bothered by high salinity. Many of them can consume inorganic compounds such as iron, sulfur, methane, or hydrogen for their sole source of energy. One species, Thermococcus gammatolerans, is the most radiation-resistant organism on the planet.

The home world of the Kaiju was harsh and full of radiation. I reasoned that the Kaiju would bring microorganisms along with them when they traveled from one universe to the other. Quickly, the ideas snowballed; I began imagining all sorts of variations of Archaea-like creatures that might metabolize inorganic compounds in a world without carbon. The Kaiju - and, presumably, the microbes they brought with them - would heavily pollute this environment, which was an important part of the narrative, so I began to imagine many of the pollutants and leftovers that the Archaea-like creatures would metabolize to toxic byproducts. This obviously seems straight out of science fiction, but I think it’s fascinating to know that we live in a world where it’s not too far from the truth.

When I finally completed it, this story ended up being one of my favorite things I had ever written. I was really grateful for the micro courses that had informed me about these “alien” life forms right on our
planet. In the future, I hope other science fiction writers take the time to study Earth’s microorganisms to build their worlds in ways that are as complex and beautiful as life as we know it.

Image of Venenivibrio: Thermophile; CC BY-SA 3.0

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.