The Pale Green Child

The pale green child started as a dream, as all great intentional breakthroughs do. I was sitting in a lab pondering a book I was listening to about the evolution of the eukaryota. That dramatic moment or process whereby they engulfed some more bacteria and enslaved them for 2 billion years. Endosymbiosis. From that process arose the most complex of the organelles, the nucleus, the mitochondria, and the chloroplast. Each of them was once thought to have been a free, independent life form, now forever fused within the larger host cell.

I wondered, to test the theory I ought to replicate it. Could I take some innocent archaea or simple algae and implant it within a larger cell? Would the host accept the parasite or would the defenses of the cell trigger to destroy the foreign material? The first several experiments were failures. The paramecium just thought it was being fed and the would-be-slaves turned into raw materials. The cell recognized the material as “other”. So my first step was to mark the new cells as “self”. Some clever gene splicing copied the host identity membrane proteins into the archaea’s genome. Suddenly, other had become self.

That wasn’t the end of the challenges. If the captive organelles were truly independent lifeforms then they would survive outside the host cell. But this isn’t the case. Not only are the mitochondria and friends physical captives of their host but their genetic blueprint is also shared with the genome of the host cell. Yes, they have maintained a small portion of that but they are missing pieces. The growth and division of the captive cells is controlled by the host genome. The bits of DNA that code for those functions has been removed from the prisoners and held captive in the command center. Without that code the captive cell would grow independently of the host. Normally this resulted in the captive growing too quickly and killing the host. Sometimes the host would divide and the captive would not have divided into the new generation.

More genetic engineering followed. It was a painstaking process to identify the correct genes. Evolution gets millions of tries and years to work out the right mixture of proteins to produce the desired results. I had publication deadlines and funding limitations. I gradually found the code I needed though, and persuaded my paramecium to accept the right pieces. Then I had another problem. I also had to remove the code from the captive to prevent it from staging a coup or dividing on its own schedule.

But it worked! I had artificially produced one of the biggest moments in the evolution of life! I had created a Eukaryote! Yes it was a single cell, but the theory of endosymbiosis had been confirmed in my lab! I was content to ride the wave of fame with a speaking tour of the large universities that rested in whatever tropical country I wanted to visit. But science when mixed with engineering is a curious germ. I wanted to know what else I could get away with.

More tests followed and I started to tackle the next challenge. Multicellularity. The trick now was I was dealing with organisms that already had captive organelles. So I added a few markers of my own so I could verify when my club of algae or fungus had successfully adopted my introduced cells. It was like adding a trademark to my work.

This had brought me no small level of fame within the scientific circles, but few beyond realized the significance. Who cared if I could add mitochondria to animals that already had them? So what? That is when I started focusing on chloroplasts.

Adding mitochondria to a cell that already had it was no big leap. They already had the infrastructure to support it. But adding a chloroplast to an animal cell…that was new territory. The cells took some training. Chloroplasts wanted nutrition that the animal cell was unused to providing. I had to re-balance the membrane proteins so the cell with eat the correct proportions of nutrients. Like all balancing acts, it involved a lot of fine tuning. Scaling upwards also was a serious concern. Chloroplasts require a certain stability that animal cells lack and, not surprisingly, require more surface area to be effective than animal cells.

I was a few years into making green mushrooms at this point. They could not survive only on sunlight yet but they did grow larger and faster than their unaltered cousins. It was an exciting step for agriculture although many were distrustful about eating my large, rapidly growing mushrooms. I’m not convinced the bright lime green color had anything to do with it…but that was probably it.

That was when Dale Brukupski came to visit. He was in the business of fertility clinics. Most of what they did was counseling on good diets and lifestyle changes to encourage pregnancy but they also offered a line of treatments and in vitro services for those struggling with fertility. He revealed to me that they had a secret service beyond that for those looking for something a bit special: designer babies. With the growth of gene editing technology the long-talked-of specter of human gene editing was largely taboo but no longer impossible. They had found ways to let wealthy parent’s select the sex of their child, to screen out potentially fatal embryos, and even to select eggs that were free of inheritable genetic diseases. With a bit more cash they could screen embryos for nonlethal traits, muscle tissue, eye color, height. While most of these services were provided by harvesting a large number of embryos from the parents and then identifying the traits in each egg they were still limited by the random division of alleles provided by meiosis. As more and more traits were added to the wish list, more embryos were needed to find the correct combination. Dale wanted to take the next step into directly editing the DNA of unborn children.

This is where the tale of the pale green man begins. A few years of intensive collaboration, a very frustrated businessman unused to the slow methods of science, the dodging of ethical boards of inquiry, and the use of laboratories with less government oversight than mine had. Soon Dale had lined up a desperate host surrogate and secured some of the best embryos available to him through the fertility clinics. Initially we decided to start with a female, we thought it would be easier to control if need be. But the slow fine tuning process to get the chloroplasts into the fertilized egg required so many false tries that we couldn’t afford to ignore half the embryos available to us. We began trials on all the eggs we had and so it was near chance that resulted in Terran.

As an embryo he adopted the chloroplasts like a drunk man clutches a bottle. It seemed casual, in consequential until you tried to take them away. I believe we may have altered too many genes in his nucleus when we fused his blueprints with the captured light eating cells. The chloroplasts were all kept close to the interior of the cell, caught up in the folds of the endoplasmic reticulum. It wasn’t until 3 weeks in that they began to spread out a bit, perhaps urged on by the increasing darkness in the interior cells.

We have only a vague idea of what happened after 3 weeks when we implanted him into his surrogate. (Normally in vitro is performed earlier than this but we had worked out a technique that allowed us to still attach to the placenta). We kept a close watch on the surrogate this whole time, with frequent scans and absolutely precise nutrition. She proceeded like most pregnancies, with similar aches and pains and illnesses and hormonal changes. She did have a very strong preference for sunlight, spending hours laying by the sunny windows of our research complex and refusing sunscreen. At about 6 months we realized something odd, the first of many things we would discover about Terran. He was heavy. The extra organelles had increased his density. So, though he was normal in volume compared to other babies, he was about 11% heavier. We had no idea what implications this would have later in life, but worries about extra wear on his joints were high on the list.

His 0th birthday was a highly anticipated affair (although we kept it quiet to the public for fear of misunderstandings). Although we had kept a close watch on him throughout his life none of our scanners included his color. When we removed him from his surrogate we found a beautiful baby boy with just the faintest greenish tint, as though he had been dipped in mint ice cream from head to toe. This delighted us to no end. Imagine a child with the power to extract energy from the sun yet who could still walk around unnoticed among the rest of us!

A few days later that dream disappeared entirely.

At the first exposure to sunlight the child began to green substantially. The pale minty color was replaced by a yellow avocado and then vibrant algal lime green. Of course the parts of him most frequently exposed became the greenest. His face and hands, his little ears. His darker portions remained the pale green he had at birth. I can only claim luck on getting the growth factors to respond so well to sunlight.

His hair was another story. At birth it was a flame of red (a review of the donors made it abundantly clear where that came from). Like most birth hair it quickly rubbed off but when it began to grow back it was a dark forest green. As if the flaming red had mixed with the lime green in something that ought to have been brown. Initially all of the hair was the same dark green color but as it grew longer the shaded bits developed fewer chloroplasts which lightened the hair color at the roots along the spectrum back to his ancestral red. It wasn’t until he was 3 years old (we had utterly refused to cut his hair) that the chlorophyll began to degrade in the hair. Since hair is made up of dead cells and only actively grows at the root this shouldn’t have been surprising, in retrospect nothing about Terran should have been surprising. The result was an active three year-old boy with dusty brown tipped hair which transitioned into auburn, forest green, earthy brown, and rooted in Irish red. He was a sight to behold.

Our big question about Terran was how the chloroplasts might affect his metabolism. At 111% density he was a solid child, very robust with strong muscles. He didn’t grow as tall as we might have suspected, perhaps slowed in his growth by the added weight. However his surface area was limited, so while the chloroplasts added to his weight in every cell of his body they only added to his energy production on the surface of his body. So we suspected the metabolic advantaged would be limited. We kept careful track of his food intake and we did think there was evidence of enhanced metabolism. But without a twin for comparison it was difficult to detect. Our anecdotal evidence however, was substantial.

When Terran cried we would take him outside and it would calm him. When left to crawl about a room he always seemed to find the brightest corner to play in. When sleeping he would remove anything that kept him from exposure to the sun, blankets, shirts, even diapers once he figured out how. Instead of a night-light we gave him a full spectrum heat lamp which he adored. We often worried that his cancer risk was going to be abnormally high but…we had already accepted that abnormal was going to be a leafy green ensign for Terran.

In the winter Terran grew quiet and slow. For the hours of sunlight that we did receive he would move to the window and splay out to collect as much of the sunlight as possible. At the age of three we moved him to a more mid-latitudinal location to try to spare him the winter blues. It helped substantially. He didn’t seem to mind the hot or cold as much as others did. He certainly felt the cold but temperature was a secondary concern to absorbing light from the sun. For this reason we kept him with plenty of strong grow lights in the warmth of his room where we didn’t have to worry about him catching cold. We developed a lab policy of applying sunscreen to ourselves when we entered his room such was the nature of the lights we had in there.

Terran loved dogs and cats but had a strange fear of fish, goats, and cows. Until he encountered them on a plate anyway. He loved all forms of meat but utterly refused to eat anything green. Mushrooms were okay (except my green varieties), carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and so forth. But if it was green he wouldn’t touch it. Just got a strange look on his face and a stiff frown. He loved milkshakes. He also loved water. He moved away from milk at a fairly young age but constantly was asking us to refill his water bottle. We always tried to keep it full.

We measure calories intensely and we did find that he consumed fewer than other children his age, but not outside the range of variation. We did notice he ate significantly less during the summer and more during the winter which may have indicated added energy from the chloroplasts during high light times. We attempted to find siblings from his donor parents but they wouldn’t consent to let us monitor their daughter with the level of intensity we monitored Terran. We had elected not to tell them the full truth about what Terran was for fear of word getting out and the inevitable public outcry. We wanted to prove that our green man was nothing to fear, that we could successfully manipulate the human genome without triggering species catastrophe or producing robot children.

He was a patient child. Unlike most human children he had no problem siting still for hours so long as the sun was shining. He would sit and play with a toy, or hum softly to himself. A more gentle child you never had met. As he grew and we came to know him he was often a startling combination of raw energy and endless patience. He never gave up on an idea or a goal that intrigued him. We once planted a bean in a cup and he waited for it to sprout for 2 weeks without leaving the cup. He would take it with him as he moved from light to light and instinctively seemed to know which lights were full spectrum and which were not.

I know with the news of Terran’s hijacking of the space dragon there must be a great deal of fear about our genetically engineered children. But I know Terran. I’ve known him since before he was born. He, and others like him, represent our future. No one is more capable of reaching the stars than my photosynthetic son. While I cannot explain what must have drove him to do all that he did I am confident that he is only looking for greater light himself. He has no ill intent for the rest of us in spite of all the prejudice we laid on him. He wants only to grow, and I wish him the greatest luck as he spreads our genetic material into the far reaches of the sky.

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One thought on “The Pale Green Child

  1. Anita Fairbanks

    Something oughta be done about this story. A children’s picture book?

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