dmlandrum

I'm plotting out a screenplay, and I'm trying to figure something interesting out. I need to devise or otherwise find some mechanism by which an entire population of underwater-dwelling humans (yes, this is a science-fiction-y story) can be rendered sterile in such a way that it can be mistaken for either a natural cause or an unintended consequence. I say "mistaken" because it turns out to be a deliberate act, but that actually gave away a big plot point. Not that I'm worried about anyone "stealing" my ideas, but I don't want to spoil the story for anyone. ;D

The seemingly best possibility I can find on the Series of Tubes is a class of chemical pollutants called "estrogen receptor blockers", but I'm not sure about those because it turns out there are reasons for women to take them deliberately (though I guess it's not really a pollutant anymore if it's deliberately taken as a medication). Also, I need something that will work on a whole population with more or less 100% certainty. It's not a huge population, and they are all living in a single lake. Since this would be part of a long-term plot against this people, it also doesn't need to work on 100% of the population right away. There could be a great reduction in babies born over a couple of generations. The key, though, is that it needs to be able to foil the good guys' attempt at solving it (until they learn it's not an accident, that is...).

Okay, I think that's enough rambling for now. Thank you for the help!
Darren Landrum

Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.


pstamler

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #1 on: November 14, 2009, 07:08:36 PM »
Couple of possibilities. Could genetically engineer a variant of E. coli that strongly resembles bacteria that are part of normal intestinal flora, but that cranks out large quantities of estrogen receptor blockers. Or you could, more remotely, create a virus that causes the body to make the blockers.

Or, working on the other sex, you could have the bacteria or virus secrete large quantities of estrogen or estrogen-mimicking compounds, causing the men to grow boobs and lose their sex drives. Maybe get sterile too; I don't know whether estrogen would have that effect on males.

Peace,
Paul

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #2 on: November 14, 2009, 07:38:14 PM »
From a storyline (and scientific) perspective, you may be better off with a compound that makes men sterile while leaving women fertile, as males are generally more sexually fragile, particularly in the presence of environmental toxins, than females. We have seen already men's sperm counts are on the decrease as a side effect of our modern lifestyle, and there is much debate about what is and isn't a cause.

With that in mind, I think you're starting on the right track with estrogen receptors, but if you want a directly hormonal agent, you might be better off moving in the direction of phytoestrogens and/or androgen blockers (androgen antagonists/inhibitors).

Phytoestrogens are naturally (and synthetically) occurring compounds that are  similar enough to estrogen to mimic its effects in the body. The two most famous sources of phytoestrogens are soy (which is why most body builders will prefer whey protein over soy) and plastics. Bisphenol A (BPA), for example, is a phytoestrogen. Phytoestrogens are known to decrease sperm count and fertility both in men. In some sexually adaptive frogs, they can even trigger a full gender metamorphosis, from male to female.

Another hormonally-dependent way to render your male population infertile might be androgen antagonists, which would block the effects of testosterone.

The problem with either approach is that neither are genetic, and thus the removal of the hormonally-active agent should prompt at least a partial recovery in most males unless the exposure was extreme and prolonged. If it was so extreme and  prolonged, it would most likely be noticeable via symptoms like lethargy, gynomastica (man boobs), delayed male puberty, etc..

So, although that might work, perhaps a better method would be to have a viral vector (virus with customized DNA for gene therapy) that slowly and insidiously infects your population, gradually altering their genome to render them sexually inert.

If advanced enough, this could theoretically work equally for men and women, but  it would probably still be easiest on men, give that masculinity is defined by the presence or absence of the small and simple Y chromosome. Already, we know there are a number of microdeletions on the Y chromosome (azoospermia factor regions (AZF's)) that can trigger infertility. However, even at our level of technology, we can identify and diagnose them, so if this is an advanced civilization, perhaps you would need an extra element to make it believable that they would not notice until it is (almost?) too late.

One mechanism might be to say the vector has a long incubation period, during which it is dormant, or integrates its genome silently into the host's and otherwise goes away. Only upon activation (perhaps via an environmental trigger or just unpredictably based on time dependency) does it activate, splicing/altering genes on the Y chromosome, thus rendering that male, or at least his male offspring, progressively more inert.

The virus would still be detectable during its inert, DNA-integrated phase if you knew what its DNA sequence was and what to look for. But by then it could be too late.

Interesting question. Hope this helps.


dmlandrum

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2009, 07:40:54 PM »
I suppose I should point out that this is more along the lines of a steampunk fantasy, but whatever science it will have I want to be accurate. :) I think genetic engineering might have to be out of the running for now, thought that's not a bad idea at all, and indeed it would solve one other major issue I have, which is that I also need this to affect small pockets of the population, and some individuals, that live in other areas of the world.

I don't know, I suppose I could allow genetic engineering in a steampunk universe. The main reason I want to avoid it, though, is that if genetic engineering is possible in this world, then spotting it would be equally possible, and that's kinda the whole trick to the plot: I want the cause of the sterility to remain largely unknown and a huge puzzle that scientists are still trying to figure out. An altered bug would be noticed at once under that much scrutiny. That's why I'm trying to hunt around for some kind of chemical pollutant that would be much more subtle and might not be thought of right away.
Darren Landrum

Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

dmlandrum

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2009, 08:06:02 PM »
Wow, audiovisceral. That's certainly a lot to think about. Okay, I guess I'll have to give away some large part of the plot, but I think some details will help a lot.

This underwater race of humans did not evolve naturally, but were originally engineered (I guess that means genetic engineering, or at least Victorian science fiction-style selective breeding, exists in my world after all). They were created for one reason, to be essentially living sex toys for their demented creators. Naturally, the creation got loose and fast-forwarding a hundred years or so, they're now recognized as a race with rights. By most countries.

One particular nation has a culture of religious zealotry centering about the preservation of nature (see what I did there? How clever am I? ;) ). They don't much like the waterkin or the other nations for recognizing them as sentient and sovereign, so they decide to take matters into their own hands via an underhanded method that I started this thread to figure out.

Of course, there's a lot more political machinations than that, involving a still-existent black market slave trade of the waterkin, a large construction project by the zealot nation that seems innocent enough even upon close inspection, the question on whether waterkin and humans can crossbreed (they can't... ?), and the murky past of an airship captain with a waterkin companion who sticks by his side for a reason nobody can quite figure out.

Oh yes. There will be airships. ;D
Darren Landrum

Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

PRR

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #5 on: November 15, 2009, 12:54:01 AM »
> a steampunk universe. ...if genetic engineering is possible in this world, then spotting it would be equally possible...

Why a steampunk universe? (And why worry about tech accuracy in a steampunk fiction??)

There's two kinds of people. Steampunks and bio-techs. They have agreed to disagree and live apart with NO contact (perhaps why your folks live underwater). But a disgruntled steampunk has been spying on the biotechs, acquired the sterility trick.

I have a feeling I have read this story. But then most scifi covers the same ideas in different ways.

> did not evolve naturally, but were originally engineered

And it does sound like bio-tech developed on this world. Perhaps it developed and was then forgotten during the 100-year orgy? But the disgruntled steampunk/nation found the old books and recreated the old biotech.

> There will be airships.

Humbug and bah. The essence of Victorian engineering is "ample". Machines were expected to last forever. And without high-precision alloys, finishing, stress-analysis (on a steam-powered Babbage Engine?), their machines were HEAVY. Look at an Otto engine: 1,000 pounds for 3 horsepower. Look at the great London sewage pumps... enormous. At the tail of this era, the Wright Brothers tried to get an engine which would fly, and could not find one. Their own hack flew, poorly (and was crude, non-Victorian/Edwardian). Good engines come from post-Victorian 20th century trends (fast motorcycles).

Yes, a Hydrogen airship (good Victorians would not be drilling in Texas, where all the Helium is) "can" fly with low power, in still air. But real winds demand power/weight ratio not a lot worse than a Wright Flier (i.e. far better than Victorian) or it will surely get blown-away.

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #6 on: November 15, 2009, 12:59:04 AM »
Steampunk as a genre has never made any sense to me. I watched Wild Wild West. It was ridiculous. I imagine that's not all there is to steampunk, but if there's more, I lost interest right then and there.

On the other hand, steampunk as an aesthetic (if by 'steampunk' it's meant big, clunky, archaic designs that are far more advanced than they look) is better.

But if it is only 'steampunk' in looks alone, there should be few limits the technology can reach. They are either advanced enough, or they are not.

dmlandrum

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house?
« Reply #7 on: November 15, 2009, 11:03:37 AM »
"Wild Wild West" is the single worst examples of steampunk ever (I nearly walked out of the theater, but I was there with friends at the time). Phil Foglio's Girl Genius comic (http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php) provides a much better example, but is still solidly within the realm of fantasy. For me, it comes down to an aesthetic and an attitude about machines a) being built to last, and b) being built to be repairable.

I guess "The Golden Compass" is supposed to be a steampunk-ish film, but I don't trust it, so I haven't seen it. For another example, see "City of Lost Children", which is a French film with Ron Perlman. That one gets the idea right, though in the end it's still a fanciful French film more than it is any kind of solid SF or fantasy.

Or for something more on the cute and amusing side, we have 2D Goggles alternate-history account of the adventures of Babbage and Lovelace: http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/lovelace-the-origin-2/

So when I refer to steampunk, it's about aesthetics and airships.
« Last Edit: November 15, 2009, 11:05:53 AM by Consul »
Darren Landrum

Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

dmlandrum

Re: Something Different Part II: Any ecology/biology peeps in da house? New
« Reply #8 on: November 15, 2009, 12:38:47 PM »
But it could be worse: my original inspiration was Final Fantasy X. ;D

To be honest, the steampunk idea has been falling further and further by the wayside for some time. The feel I'd really like is from those classic SF novels from the 60s, especially the ones by Clarke, where you have that feeling of wonder and amazement and of unlimited potential for humans as a race. Only in mine, that potential is marred by politics and religion.

I still want airships, though.

One thing I want to avoid is the Babylon 5 "techno mage" idea where the technology is so advanced that you can have anything appear however you want. A caravel sailing through the sky into space, with people out on the deck? No problem when your tech is so advanced that you no longer have to care about what's possible. (Galaxy Express, anyone?)

PRR's idea is interesting, but a ways away from mine. The underwater society is a third party in the conflict, created by a fourth party who were really just a small group of obsessed scientists and are no longer a part of the picture. So it's the zealots versus the more science-oriented types, only here, the zealots are the bad guys, thus guaranteeing me condemnation from Congress and TV pundits for years to come, but the zealots more resemble extremist environmentalists, so that balances it out some.

But there's a lot I'm holding back about what's really motivating who, so don't think you have the entire picture from these few posts. I'm just trying to find a way to make a population sterile that'll work within reasonable bounds.
« Last Edit: November 15, 2009, 12:46:31 PM by Consul »
Darren Landrum

Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

 

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