Mutation

Inspiration for Mutation.

Due to a very busy life on the road, I had given up reading novels for years. But one day I was in Eason’s bookshop in O’Connell Street, Sligo and I came across the late Michael Crichton’s novel Congo. I read the back cover and flipped through the pages. I loved the story line but what really intrigued me was the bibliography at the back. I realised I wanted to do similar. But it was still years later until that seed in my mind became anything other than a dream.

I was in Atlantic Mills in Longford, a real textile plant. We had to lift out aerators at the back of the plant. It was part of the system for cleaning up the effluent from the denim manufacturing plant. I was fascinated to hear from the electrician that they used bacteria to aid the process.

I read up on the subject and the kernel of an idea began to form in my mind. Bacteria were fascinating, I discovered. And when I came across an article about genetic engineering and that scientists were beginning to genetically engineer bacteria to aid in the fight against pollution, I was hooked. From that came Dr. Mae Wan Ho’s book Genetic Engineering, ream or nightmare? The brave new world of bad science and big business: the brave new world of genetic engineering.

I found references in other works to the fear of releasing ‘laboratory monsters’ into the ecosystem.

***

This work is fiction: these extracts are taken from my novel  Mutation.

Now out on Kindle and soon to be published in paperback by Twilight Books.

Orlando had studied microbiology at the University of Havana. By twenty seven, he had completed his doctorate: ‘Biotechnology and the environment: the application of the chemostat in pollution and waste management control in the nuclear age.’ It contained some controversial areas, such as his argument that big business was not doing enough to aggressively finance science in the pursuit of the new wonders of recombinant DNA technology to assist biotechnology in the fight against environmental, and in particular, water pollution. Most experts in this area believed that the danger of ‘laboratory monsters’ being released into the environment was much too great. Most scientists, while making progress with biotechnology and genetics in the area of medicine and agriculture, were afraid of creating aggressive strains of oil eating bacterium, to eat up oil spills at sea, for example. They could not balance the undoubted advantages against their inability to rein in such a fearsome creation after it had done its work. In the 1990s, therefore, all experiments with genetically engineered oil eating bacterium were viewed with extreme cynicism and trepidation.

But despite the misgivings of the more conservative scientists who had supervised Orlando’s paper, Orlando Cabrera had done enough to gain a place in one of Cuba’s most unusual and unlikely big projects. Cuba, a third world country, strangled by the economic blockade of the US and now left destitute from the collapse of Soviet aid, had entered into one of the most exciting ventures of modern science: biotechnology and genetics.

In 1984, the Centre of Advanced Genetic Technology (CAGT), opened in Cuba, just outside Havana. Dr Orlando Cabrera walked through its doors for the first time – as an employee; as a student, Orlando had visited the place several times in the course of his PhD research – in June, 1995. Despite his doctorate, Orlando still had much to learn. No senior position would be open to him for some time. However, if he showed the potential and zeal that his thesis promised, the centre had high hopes for the young scientist.

It was Orlando’s ideas on adapting a basic piece of laboratory equipment, the chemostat, into a giant real life functioning ecosystem that got the attention of his teachers. The chemostat creates a sealed environment in which scientists can safely study microbial growth and their interaction with whatever the scientists introduce into the sealed world, including pollution and various organisms. Orlando’s idea was to create a massive chemostat. A model of a small lake, in fact, into which experiments to create a genetically engineered organism to aggressively devour industrial pollution and oil spills could be introduced and safely worked on. It was breathtaking in its boldness. But it was just the kind of thinking that might just save the centre from its financial misfortunes.

He took the small hand pistol from his coat pocket. Just four and a half inches long, with the magazine only half full, it weighed only about ten ounces. It fitted like a toy in his hand. But it was no toy. He had fired it before leaving, at a heavy wooden old barn door. It worked all right. It was a 1910 Walther Model 1. A clandestine present from an old army friend whose son he has tutored back in his teaching days. ‘A collector’s item’, his friend had said. There was a cartridge already in the chamber.  He had three more in the magazine, but he would only need one, after that he wouldn’t know anything. Sitting on the guard rail, he would topple over and the lake could do what it liked with what remained.

His attention was suddenly alerted by something unusual, outside the perimeter of his proper vision. In the distance, he could see smoke rising from the lake. His journey to self-destruction temporarily stalled. He stuffed the pistol back in his pocket. It was black smoke and it smelt. It smelt, on the cold May lake breeze, of oil – and fear. He shuffled with shaking hands for the binoculars. His grip was weak and his eyes rheumy, but through the glasses what he saw made his heart leap in his old chest. He dropped the glasses and lurched for the steering. He turned his craft towards the flames and the black smoke.

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