Monday, August 11, 2014

The Race for Immortality: Plants Win!

Ray Mettler, one of my protagonists in The Methuselarity Transformation, genetically engineered a grass designed to grow so slowly that it required scant water and nutrients and almost no maintenance. HibernaTurf was intended to mitigate the growing worldwide water shortage while preserving swaths of easy to maintain green space.

His research led him to the saguaro cactus, a model of indolent growth, from which he harvested the genetic sequences responsible for its sluggish metabolism. While his project was a resounding success, winning him fame and fortune, its unintended consequences would bring the environment to the edge of catastrophe and cast a shadow over Ray’s life forever.

According the September 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, Ray...and I...missed the boat. The inertia of the saguaro pales before the infinitesimal growth of the moss campion. This plant has tiny leaves so tight to the ground that it defies grazing. And left alone, it seems capable of living indefinitely without signs of natural senescence. Ray might have saved himself a lot of trouble by propagating this naturally occurring analog to HibernaTurf instead of creating a brand new species. The Discover article speculates further that some organisms, perhaps including bristlecone pines that live for millennia, may undergo “negative senescence,” becoming increasingly impervious to deterioration and death as they age.

So what will be the next stage in the human quest for immortality? Will we find a way to stop aging at the cellular level, or will we learn how to slow our metabolism to a snail’s pace and to exist on whiffs of nutrients and thimblefuls of water? And will an extended lifespan escalate our deadly struggle to control diminishing land and resources or lead us to value life more and choose to enhance one another’s well-being and survival?

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