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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Just to prove I’m a biology geek as well as a physics geek

Big S.I.S. or Secondary Immune System is considered to be one of the great medical discoveries alongside germ theory and penicillin and often lauded as a concrete step towards a panacea. However, I’m going to use it to illustrate the biological/technological divide.

For anyone that doesn’t know how the human immune system works, invading pathogens have surface antigens (specific protein chains) that the anti-bodies in your immune system attach to and so flag the pathogen for destruction by the white blood cells. Now this functions fine in almost all cases, considering you will come into contact with billions of bacteria on a daily basis and only get sick every few months, but there is always room for improvement. Especially against pathogens that could outfox the normal immune system like HIV and malaria.

At the end of the 22nd century both Altair and Earth were experimenting with an artificial antibody producer. These would have a much lower threshold than the human response, and due to a more specialised nature, they would be able to produce antibodies faster. Both research teams worked in more or less isolation and reached quite different solutions.

The Earth team created a template for a micro-robot that took up residence in the liver. This would, on a prompt from an external source, pump out large amounts of antibodies and was controlled by a larger implant beneath the hypothalamus[1]. The treatment was very effective, could be reprogrammed to keep up with mutating pathogens and was mother of all expensive to produce. In fact the system was so expensive[2] and required constant upkeep to function that it took fifty years for half the population of Earth to posses the device and even then most health systems only covered it for an additional surcharge.

Altair took a very different tack. They stripped down the human antibody producing cells (plasma B cells) and got them to self replicate, then they allowed for a certain man made viral strain to be taken up by the cells and introduced a vicious evolutionary system. Each cell would produce a huge amount of antibody, but it would also use the concentration of that antibody as a trigger for autolysis (cell suicide). This meant that there was a constant variation in the antibodies and those that were binding to pathogens wouldn’t increase in concentration enough to kill the producing cell, thus promoting the evolution of a more effective SIS based on the pathogens the host was regularly exposed.

While technically more complicated to set up the SIS in this instance had almost zero maintenance and was self replicating, not to mention that in many cases its evolution was faster than that of the pathogens. Its biological basis meant that production was very cheep and in the same time frame Altair had total saturation and was already working on coding the production of the SIS into the populations’ genes[3].

Now, this is quite a biased example. Biological technologies suck for building spaceships, for example. But I thought it would be interesting too show two very different ways of solving the same problem.


[1] Large being a relative term, it could still be injected.

[2] There are many laws in Vast Worlds against self replicating machines too small to be hit by a hammer, this kept the price of construction of anything below milli scale high for a very long time.

[3] Interestingly, this is a microcosm of why the Altairians did the best out of the End Time Wars. Technology needs constant maintenance, skilled labour and a solid understand of its workings. Altair’s biological techs, while very clever, are installed on the genetic level to the entire population and so, while centuries of knowledge were lost in both instances, on Altair those technologies kept working generations after the machines have crumbled into dust.

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