It was an overcast day in the Pacific Northwest when Suzanne Delaney went to a local coffee shop for her morning coffee – a 20oz, quad shot, mocha. Tourist season had just ended after Labor Day and Suzanne was glad to be able to return to her daily constitutional without having to stand in a queue as if she were at a state licensing bureau. Having ordered her drink and moved to the pick-up counter, she ran into an acquaintance who accosted her for a hug and conversation while she waited for her mocha. After about ten minutes of updating her inquisitive friend on her research and whether or not she had a current love interest, she couldn’t help noticing that other people who ordered after her were collecting their beverages and hers had not been called.
“Did you not call me drink? A 20oz, quad shot, mocha,” she asked the barista?
“I’m sorry. I completely forgot to make it, “said the friendly and animated Barista. “I can be such a dork sometimes. Coming right up.”
“That is the third time this week they’ve forgotten to make my drink,” Suzanne exclaimed.
“She’s new,” her friend added.
“It’s not just her. Other baristas have forgotten, too. It’s not like they have a lot to remember now that the summer is over. PTSD – post-tourist stress disorder, I suppose.”
After a chuckle and a few more minutes of rapping up gossip, she was on her way.
Suzanne was employed as a research scientist by a non-profit organization that monitors the health of marine life and the ecosystem in the San Juan Island archipelago which lies northwest of the coast of Seattle, Washington. A marine biologist specializing in invertebrates, she had immersed herself in her investigation of the cause of sea star wasting disease. There was a plague of diseased sea stars before her time on the East Coast in 1972, but as recent as the summer of 2013 another major die-off occurred on the East Coast. This time in addition, the ochre sea star species nearly disappeared on the West Coast before a recovery period followed and an increase in their population was observed.
A suspected culprit of sea star wasting disease was termed the ‘sea star associated densovirus’ (SSaDV), a member of the genus Ambidensovirus, which are in the family of parvoviruses that affect vertebrate and invertebrate hosts. The densovirus is a single-strand of DNA protected by a protein shell on the order of 20-30 nanometers. Suzanne had been studying samples of cells from wasted sea stars found on Orcas Island in the past several years to see if there was evidence of a virus present.
Not equipped like the research labs of a university, she was however fortunate to have received enough funds for a six-figure, laser confocal microscope thanks to a recent large donation to the organization from an anonymous donor. Better than an optical microscope like those used at the local high school, yet not nearly as powerful as a scanning electron microscope from a well-endowed institution, it would allow her to look for evidence of smaller particulates than she had been limited to previously.
As she strolled into her office with her 20oz mocha nearly gone, she was whistling a happy tune because it was the first day she would use the new microscope to examine the slides she had been preparing in anticipation of its delivery. She got right to work, first booting her laptop to play her favorite music station of impressionist classical piano, and then turning on all other equipment she needed. That included the small heater she kept under her table “to warm her tootsies” – as she would always say.
For the first hour there were no extraordinary observations. She had made annotations in her journal merely to document the slides she was viewing from various sea stars samples. When she started her first slide from her third sea star sample, she did notice something. There were small specs, nearly round in shape, dots, around the cell walls. They were a lot smaller than what she expected and hadn’t been looking at the earlier samples with such scrutiny. She hadn’t remembered to sharpen her mental acuity and increase expectations to match the high resolution capability of the laser confocal microscope. With that in mind, she pulled out one of the first slides she looked at and closely examined the cell walls. Now she saw things differently. It seemed that all cellular samples had these spheres attached in quantity. But, they were so small, on the order of ten to a hundred nanometers, so their exact shape could not be determined. They were specks. Their material composition was likely unknown because she didn’t believe that anyone had seen these particulates before and probably never studied them. She had no recollection of their being mentioned in any academic papers. With all she hoped for with this new microscope, she still needed far better resolution. To help her further with this, she turned to her friend Emily who works with a scanning electron microscope at the University of Washington.
Perplexed and excited for an awaiting discovery, Suzanne first emailed Emily some preliminary digital images from her microscope. Then she spoke with Emily on the telephone and scheduled some time for her to use the electron microscope at the university the morning after next. Emily invited Suzanne to stay at her apartment in Seattle the next evening so the two would talk more about Suzanne’s research before heading straight to the lab the following morning.
Suzanne travelled to the Seattle about once each month for business, but preferred the quiet of her island with less than 5000 full-time residents and not a single traffic light. Yet, whenever she did leave the island she embraced the experience of sailing the Salish Sea, for the ferry ride from Orcas Island to the mainland is a breathtaking journey for anyone lucky enough to make it. While there are numerous islands all shapes and sizes in San Juan County, Washington, only the three largest islands have state ferry services that transport vehicles and people to the mainland, and sailing among them in the Salish Sea provides a lot of natural eye candy. Distant mountain ranges like the Olympic peninsula are snowcapped all year. Conifer forests are peppered with the orange-red bark of madrona trees that follow the contours of the islands at lower elevations. When the ferries pass closely enough, you can almost feel the soft textures of the green moss-covered cliffs and boulders.
As Suzanne stood in the open air at the bow of the ferry, the same salt-water air which flowed through her hair also ruffled her windbreaker making a flapping noise in concert with the waves the ferry was making. She felt a few drops of water on her face, but whether it was splatter from the sea or tears from the cloudy skies, she neither knew nor cared. Following four months of nearly perfect sunshine, she was ready for the winter rains. It was the Pacific Northwest after all.
A grouping of three seagulls paralleled alongside the ferry, flapping their wings and seemingly going nowhere from Suzanne’s perspective. As she turned to go inside the ferry’s seating area, someone from the other size of the bow yelled, “killer whales.” Suzanne turned and witnessed the pod of mammals lob-tailing. Although she was hoping to see a breach, it wasn’t to happen on that trip. She smiled anyway.
After arriving at Emily’s house, Suzanne filled her in about what she expected to find out at the lab in the morning.
“So, tell me, Suzanne. What is it that you think you have in these samples of yours,” Emily asked?
“Something on the nanoscale…certainly interesting to marine life…I just don’t know if I’m dealing with an organic pathogen…they are uniform in size so I can’t imagine that they are minerals. How could a grouping of molecules or crystalline structures appear in only one size consistently in samples from different organisms collected at different periods. I’d expect a bell curve of sample sizes, wouldn’t you?”
“How small do you think they are?”
“I’m guessing they are between 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter, but whatever they are – they are all identical in size.”
“We shall see. If these are samples of a virus, we certainly should be able to tell.” Emily concluded.”
The next morning Suzanne followed Emily to the lab at the university. Since she was planning to return to the island afterwards, Suzanne needed to take her own car. Upon arrival, they found that the lab staff had everything set up already and the two could get to work right away.
It was only a minute after the first sample went into the machine when Emily dialed in the resolution which, as she was expecting, would reveal some answers. Both of them were surprised at the first image that appeared on the screen.
“Was this possibly contaminated,” Emily asked?
“No. Here. Let’s try another sample.”
After several samples, they assumed that whatever it is they were looking at was going to be a big discovery. They observed icosahedrons, three-dimensional objects with 20 identical sides, each one being an equilateral triangle. Of course, these geometries occur in nature – crystals, for example, as well as viruses. But, all of the objects in each sample were solitary. None of them formed crystals to make larger objects and none of them appeared in any degenerate form.
“OK. We have something remarkable here,” said Suzanne, but what are they? Can we identify the composition from spectroscopic analysis?”
After a little time in the lab, the ladies were not merely more baffled by the material composition of the objects, but by new mysteries of equal importance.
“What…are…you,” Suzanne rhetorically asked the objects in an inquisitive, but concerned voice.
“These are definitely artificial – constructed,” said Emily.
“Constructed by whom? For what purpose? Do you thing they are viral in nature,” Suzanne asked?
“Look at this. Clearly the outer shell of the object is made of a protein not unlike a virus, but the framework of the object seems to be several layers of a graphene matrix, each no more than 1 nm thick…Oh my GOD! There is a strand of what looks like DNA coiled up in the center of the object. This is crazy. Someone made this. This is absolutely beyond my comprehension. We need a biophysicist to take a look at this. Jake, in the lab upstairs…”
“OK. Hold on, Emily,” Suzanne interrupted. “This could be a big discovery or this could be such advanced technology that perhaps we may find ourselves in a heap of trouble for finding out about it. Of course, the investigator in me will not stop here. But, I can’t involve more people who I don’t know and trust.”
“What do you suggest,” asked Emily?
“I have a good friend…an ex-boyfriend…well, we left it on good terms…we’re good friends…anyway…he works for the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and I know he has friends at the DoD. As I recall, one in particular specializes in nanotechnology, graphene, and what have you. I’ll contact my boy…I mean, my friend – his name is Marcus – and I’ll ask him to make contact with his buddy. Can you put some of these images on a thumb drive for me?”
“Sure, give me a few minutes. Listen, Suzanne, I have a friend who is a geneticist and I’d trust her with my life. Will you let me show her these results and let me have a sample? Maybe she could sequence the DNA for us.”
“Alright,” Suzanne said, “but please do not tell her where the samples came from. Tell her the source prefers to remain anonymous.”
“You’ve got it!”
“I’ll check in with you tonight.”
To be continued…
© 2018 Michael Armenia