A man in casual business attire looked through the window in a large door to a series of laboratories where numerous scientists were hard at work. The sign outside the door read in big bold unmistakable red letters Food Growth Sector. The labs were filled with sophisticated looking machines and devices, the sounds of which clicked with pumps rotating and motors turning and fluids flowing in the background while the scientists were hard at work at the bench. There were a myriad of scientists in plain white lab coats, eyes covered in safety glasses, and hands blue with tight fitting rubber gloves. All of them had badges with their picture and name and a long number that they wore facing outwards on the upper pocket of their white coats. The man in the collared pin stripped shirt and khakis held his badge to a sensor outside the door. The sensor beeped and he opened the door and walked in and through the lab making sure not to get in the way of the busy scientists. As he walked through he turned to notice a series of large metallic doors on one side of the lab, each had a small window near the top with pure intense bright white light beaming out. Through the windows he could see more scientists hard at work peering over a bench in the room. Their safety glasses were tinted to protect them from the intense light inside. He could see the leaves at the tops of plants that were being grown in the chambers. Then he walked out of the door at the far end of the labs that opened into an expansive greenhouse where a wide variety of plants were growing as far as the eye could see. The warmth of the air hit him first, then the light from the sun overhead. The area was well lit and hot and humid with tens of thousands of potted plants in rows. Some of the plants were alive, some dead, and some were in the process of dying. There were a large number of scientists scurrying around the greenhouse. Many were suited in silver outfits wearing full face masks and respirators and spraying plants with various colored mists. The man passing through took notice of one woman in particular who was fully suited up as though she was prepared to exit a spacecraft and walk on the surface of Mars. She held an eye dropper and was placing one small dot of a pink iridescent liquid on every leaf of every plant along a row in the greenhouse. The pink liquid glowed with a yellow hue under the light from across the room. No one seemed to take any notice the man passing through.
As the man left through the door leading out of the greenhouse he walked down a long wide concrete corridor and passed a number of thick metal explosion proof doors that slid closed against thick concrete walls. He quickened his pace through this area. The corridor was silent and appeared as though it was once equipped to house a wide variety of scientific work, but there was not a soul in sight as the man passed briskly though. There were defunct equipment and old computers and control panels and desks strewn randomly through the corridor. But he knew this area had been dormant for quite some time. He walked to the last door on the left in the furthest corner of the building. It was hidden and out of sight from everything and everyone. Had the man not known exactly where he was going, he could have walked past the room multiple times without realizing it was even there. He turned abruptly and opened the door and entered the laboratory. There was one man alone in the lab. The man was in his mid thirties, he wore jeans and a plaid button up collared shirt. He was unshaven with disheveled hair and he wore glasses. The man in jeans was seated looking at strange images on the computer screen in front of him while he was tuning a dial on an instrument on the bench next to the computer. He looked up from his computer and smiled at the sight of the man that entered the room.
‘Hey Scott, what brings you all the way back out here to see me?’ Marshall Rawlings broke the silence.
‘Well, when you don’t answer my emails or my phone calls for a few days, Marshall, I have to come out here to make sure you’re still alive,’ Scott Dalheany said as he pulled up a stool and had a seat in front of Marshall. Scott’s stool was a few inches taller than Marshall’s chair so he looked down upon him as they spoke.
‘You brought good news with you, I hope?’ Marshall asked as he turned back to his computer screen intending to work uninterrupted as his boss talked.
‘Good news? Do you pay any attention to the stock prices?’ Marshall’s lack of a response, or even lack of a flinch to the comment, made it clear to Scott that he was not aware. ‘Well you should,’ Scott answered anyways. ‘Grain prices have bottomed out, corn prices are lower than they have been in decades. Cotton and soy aren’t too far behind. And on top of everything else, the abnormal weather patterns ruined harvests damn near everywhere.’
‘I’d heard that. It’s a real bummer, but the weather will come around again. These things go through cycles. We are on a downturn, it will come back up again,’ Marshall commented without looking up from his computer screen.
‘I think I see the problem here. You only care about the science Marshall. You have no care nor concern for our business.’
The comment caught Marshall’s interest and he looked up from his computer.
Scott continued, ‘Our products aren’t selling. Weed resistance is hindering farm productivity and the public is saying that our overpriced brands don’t deliver on their promises. They are also saying that our products are not safe for human consumption or the environment. We are fighting a war on multiple fronts here Marshall.’
Marshall sat silent for a moment before commenting on Scott’s words. ‘We are not fighting any wars Scott. And where do you get off saying I don’t understand the business? Scott, when did I ever give you that impression. When did the effort I’m working on ever give you that notion whatsoever? It’s my understanding of the business, and more importantly my having enough foresight for the potential future risks to our brands, that put me right here where I am. If my work works, it will turn all of that around. You and I both agreed on that a year ago. Did you forget, or just get impatient and lose confidence? You just need to have faith and a little patience.’
‘If your work works? Listen to yourself buddy,’ Scott shook his head as he spoke. ‘Your work is too risky in and of itself. It’s just not proven. We need to make investments in scientific technologies that have a higher potential for success. Everywhere else we are focusing our energy on product development that is a sure thing.’
‘A sure thing? Everything has to start somewhere Scott. You know that as well as I do. Eighteen months ago you understood that about my work, we both knew and agreed that we still needed a major revelation, but you bought onto the concept. You understand the potential for success here as well as anyone, or at least you did back then,’ Marshall argued. ‘What changed?’
‘What I understand now is that it’s going to take you making some Nobel prize winning scientific discovery to make this work. There is like a one in a billion shot of that actually happening. It’s too risky, Marshall. Investors don’t fund science on a whim that they’ll make the next greatest discovery of humankind. The chances are too great against them. Maybe if you’d go for a single or a double and lay it up we might have been able to salvage this, but you keep going for the home run or grand slam. The problem is that you’re striking out every time.’
Marshall sighed deeply before he spoke. He’d lowered the tone of his voice. ‘This isn’t a baseball game Scott. And we are not playing gold here. This is science. It takes time. It takes a lot of thought. It takes hard work, discipline, and structure. And on top of it all it takes a little luck. All of these things have to come together to get it right. Sometimes it makes better sense to go for the long shot than to lay it up.’ Marshall stopped for a moment and looked up at Scott. Having played gold with Scott many times, he knew that Scott was scared to take any risk. ’Wait, what do you mean by ’we might have been able to salvage.’ Salvage what?’ When he stopped talking his forehead was wrinkled and eyebrows angled as though he knew that he’d been defeated.
‘Salvage all of this,’ Scott said while he pointed around at the scientific equipment in the lab they sat in. ‘Look, R&D budgets are really tight right now, like really really tight, and they will be for the foreseeable future. Management is asking us to prioritize and cut wherever we can.’
‘There has to be other areas where you can trim some fluff, Scott. I’ve played the game long enough, there are five thousand people working on a hundred different projects. You can find someplace else to cut or delay the spend to keep the bare-bones expenses covered here,’ Marshall said as he began to shrug off Scotts warning and turn back to his computer screen.
‘This is already the third round of project cuts, buddy. Next will be lay offs if we can’t meet our financial targets.’
‘Those god damn bean counters don’t have any sense of how to save a technology business,’ Marshall said accusingly. ‘Cut out all the projects until there is nothing for anyone to work on. Then you have a thousand educated people sitting in their offices with the lights out to save money, before they cut the people too. That sounds great now, but think a few years from now when we need innovation to increase our stock value. You’re too focused on short term gains and not long term sustainable success,’ Marshall tried to rationalize. ‘It happens every few years. The economy goes through these mini cycles just like the weather. If you cut now, that’s great, we’ll be able to keep the lights on. For now. Think down the road when to you need the next great invention to invigorate the business. You’ll be remiss about the decision to cut. Go tell that to your bean counters.’
Scott sighed. ‘You know, you’re probably right, but they know how to balance a very large checkbook with shareholder and board of director expectations. We have owners we are accountable Marshall and we have to be very clear to them. I’m sorry it’s like this, it’s just the political environment we are in right now. I just can’t continue to cover your work. I know you’re thinking it’s only a little more than a million dollars in expense money and that’s not a lot, and you’re right. That is what has allowed me to hide it in the budget pretty well for this long. But I can’t anymore. The powers that be are going to be scrutinizing every penny we spend that closely. This has been a skunk works effort from the beginning. You tried your best, and I appreciate that. But I’m going to give you a few weeks to shut it down. After that I’m going to need you to work on more pressing issues were we need your skill set.’
‘More pressing issues? Scott, you know as well as I do that this would be a game changer if it works. It would shift the paradigm we’ve settled into and put us a step ahead of all of the problems that you came in here with. Someday you’ll look at that million dollars spent and realize it was less then one one thousandth of the return on the investment. If I were king of this place, it’d be a no brainier.’
‘Here we go again. This circular discussion is going no where. If it works. You’re eighteen months and one point one million dollars in with no success to show. Just visions of grandeur. If you wanted to be successful that bad, then you should have quit dicking around on this months ago and got your act in gear. And you’re not the king of anything if my memory serves me correctly,’ this time Scott pointed at Marshall’s face.
Marshall was surprised by the comment and felt threatened by Scott pointing. ‘No success? It took damn near sixteen months to build the equipment and prove the concept. That is pretty darn significant if you ask me. For one scientist, a lab tech, and boss that is continually looking to pull the carpet out from under us. We have proven that the concept might work. And just in the past week we’ve been generating meaningful results.’
‘Meaningful results? Marshall, the problem is they don’t mean anything meaningful to me. Show me one result that we can use to convince people that we can impact the stock price in the right direction if we continue to fund your work.’
Marshall paused for a few moments to consider his words carefully before responding. His words were calm and collected. ‘Scientific breakthroughs like this don’t just happen on demand, Scott. Sometimes things take time. Sometimes good ideas and progress come when they are ready to come. When they are least expected. You can’t limit innovation of this scale with your timelines and penny wise budgets.’ Just as Marshall had finished speaking a woman wearing a lab coat and safety glasses entered the room.
‘Doctor Rawlings?’ She tried to look around Scott towards Marshall and asked in a way so as not to interrupt the two. ‘We got today’s screening data back. None were positive sir.’
Marshall didn’t take his eyes off of Scott, ‘Thanks Trisha, maybe tomorrow.’ She nodded courteously and backed out of the room.
‘See,’ Scott continued with wide eyes, ‘Nothing positive. It’s a great idea, don’t get me wrong, you’re a great scientist. The problem is it’s not working. We are going to have to punt this one. Look, you’ve worked with me for years. Hell, you hired me Marshall. You know I trust you, and I’d hope by now you trust me. You know I’ve supported you on this for this long. But this is going to have to be paced. That’s all there is to it.’
‘By paced, you mean mothballed?’ Marshall asked.
‘I mean stopped altogether. Pull the plug. I can’t say it any clearer than that. I need the greenhouse space to carry out other testing. You are a great scientist, you’re one of the best molecular geneticists I know. But I need you on more meaningful projects. I’ll give you three weeks to shut it down. By then I expect you to move back up front to a normal office so you can rejoin civilization, have everything in here package up and shipped out so there is no sign of this work, and have a final report drafted and on my desk. Possibly get connected with some folks at a university that we can farm this work out to for them to make a lifelong career of trying to make it work. It would be a great pet project for a good graduate student or post-doc to tinker with.’
Marshall paused for a few moments as he realized that he had indeed been defeated. ‘I need six weeks to wrap up. That will give me time to process everything and get it completed to where you want it.’
Scott almost hesitated, before he said, ‘Fine. I’ll cover it for six weeks. No more. But after that I don’t even want to hear another word about editing genes or the only thing you’ll need to edit will be your fucking resume.’ Scott got up from the stool and walked through the door he had entered without another word.
Marshall sat in the silence of the lab staring blankly at the computer screen feeling as though all hope had been lost. It wasn’t business to him, it wasn’t even science. it was personal. But he kept the personal aspect just that, personal and to himself. His wife, whom he loved deeply, had inherited a genetic disease from one of her parents. Typically the disease wasn’t suppose to rear its head until she was a senior citizen or later. But she was an early bloomer. At thirty years old she’d had noticeable symptoms and they’d been escalating over the past few years. She began stuttering her speech, her hands would shake, and she would get tired easily. He hadn’t told anyone, but he’d had his daughters tested to determine if they had inherited the same genetic predisposition. Both girls had the gene, and there was a fifty fifty shot they would display symptoms later in life. If Marshall told them or his wife, he would essentially ruin their lives while they waited to start dying very slowly while they were still alive as the onset could come at any time, or not at all. The discovery he’d been chasing for a year and a half was his only hope to combat the ailing health of the women in his life.
Marshall had discovered a biological technique to easily edit the genetic profile of plants and animals. It wasn’t new science per say, but it was a new way to do the science. He knew that it might be able to be easily applied to humans in the future to cure genetic diseases, but first he wanted to use the infrastructure and resources of a massive technology corporation to facilitate the work in agriculture. He wanted to make sure it worked on plants before attempting to use it to alter the human genetic profile. He knew that large pharmaceutical companies would not be willing to take the gamble until the technology concept had been proven profitable in a lest risky commodity field like food, and by profitable he knew that the biggest hurdle was not necessarily be the science, but rather the public and legal acceptance into society. He was fortunate that he found a niche in an expansive agricultural company that was willing to take risks and invest in cutting edge research to advance profitability in food. It was largely driven by the nature of the market, meaning that the massive scale and commodity competition often sought out the next science to advance the businesses competitive market advantage. Marshall understood that very well, and he took advantage of it. He was also smart enough to know that before he’d be able to get to try on humans, it first had to be done on plants. Then on animals. After all, his father was a well known veterinarian who always said that medical doctors should pay more attention to what the vets are dong to to animals, because that’s what they’ll be wanting to do to people next. Deep in the back of his mind, he wanted this to work to cure his wife and daughters. But in the front of his mind, he knew it was a long shot. As he sat there staring into space after Scott left, he knew that he had to continue to try.
Marshall left the office after dark that night, as he did most nights for the past year. By the time he got home his wife and kids had already gone to bed and were sound asleep. He microwaved some leftovers from the fridge for dinner. After he ate he went in and kissed his sleeping daughters on their foreheads as they slept next to one another. In the poorly lit room under the night light he was not able to tell the twins apart. He then went to his bedroom and laid down next to his wife and startled her.
‘You’re home late,’ She whispered. ‘Rough day?’
‘It was ok,’ Marshall replied, ‘Just a lot of work to get done. Go back to sleep.’ He knew she understood that his career took priority over all else in his life, even though she had no understanding of exactly what he did. He knew that her day was likely much tougher than his as she struggled with her emerging illness. He kissed her forehead as he had done their daughters and rolled over and fell asleep himself.
The next morning Marshall left for work before the sun came up. He continued like this for the next four weeks without seeing the light of day. Every day by the time his lab technician Trisha would come in to report the days results, he had built up his hope to the point he felt he was about to burst with excitement. Every day for four weeks she repeated the same phrase, ‘None were positive, sir.’ He dared not to go into the greenhouse to see the plants for himself, and he waited for the daily update from his technician as the thought frantically about the next experiment to run to achieve positive results in the remaining dwindling time.
By midway through the fifth week Marshall had lost nearly all hope for his pet project. He’d become depressed and irritable, as though he’d attended a funeral for his wife and daughters. For almost two years it had been his life’s bread. The idea came from him, the identification of the opportunity for the business was his, all of the hours of hard work and problem solving he had personally put in to making the science a reality. Any opportunity to find a cure for his wife’s genetic ailment was losing hope quickly. And now it was just a week and a half away from dying altogether. In Marshall’s mind, he had killed his wife with his inability to discover a cure. On that Thursday with only one week left until he had to declare failure to his boss Scott, Trisha came into Marshall’s lab shortly after lunch. It was a few minutes earlier than her typical visit, and he could tell right away that her facial expression was different than he’d seen in previous days. Her tone had changed when she spoke.
‘Doctor Rawlings?’ Marshall’s head perked up from his computer. ‘Doctor Rawlings, you’re going to want to see this for yourself.’
‘See what, Trisha?’ He asked.
‘It’s a little early in the growth cycle, but it looks like one of your test rows may be immune to herbicides.’
Marshall sat back from his computer. ‘Immune? To which one?’
‘Well, sir, all of them,’ Trisha said with a smile.
Marshall stopped what he was doing immediately and escorted Trisha into the greenhouse without a word spoken between them. The area he’d been given to conduct his testing in the greenhouse was small and old and tucked away far from the rest of the active greenhouse space. Marshall entered the room and immediately took notice of what Trisha had called him for. He studied the plants for a while as Trisha watched in silence before she spoke.
‘You can see the negative control placebos are starting to brown on the edges of the leaves. They have the first symptom of burn down. Your positive control GMO don’t, and neither do your test plant. They are responding just like the GMO variety, with inhibition of burn down.’
‘These are GE, not GMO, Trisha,’ Marshall corrected her.
‘It’s all the same to most people, doc,’ she retorted.
Marshall turned his attention back to the dying plants and thought that the distinction between genetically modified and genetically edited would become important in the future of gene edited agriculture. ‘It’ll still be a few days before we can tell if this is just a case of delayed onset, but from the looks of these row crops here it’s pretty clear there is something unique going on.’ Marshall smiled as he continued to study the plants as he rubbed their leaves, picked them up, and bent the stalks back. ‘Trish, did you happen to notice the number of sprouts and leaves and stalks on these test plants in comparison to the positive controls?’
‘Well, in addition to appearing to be resistant to herbicides, these test plants have almost five times as many shoots. I bet if you were to weigh these the total plant mass would be much larger than either of the controls.’
‘You mean higher yield?’ Trisha asked.
Marshall smiled from ear to ear. ‘I mean that farmers are going to pay a fortune for this if it’s real. This is a grand slam,’ he muttered to himself. Marshall had had his notions for years that the GMO products his research had helped develop were not really as effective as they’d been touted. But now, standing in front of a small stalk of corn that was covered in budding ears was the makings of a new revolution.
‘Dr. Rawlings, I’ve never seen another plant that could withstand our entire battery of chemical and biological weed killers. Combine that with one that produces nearly five times as much crop. This has to be some type of tests fluke. What did you do?’
Marshall’s glasses set on the tip of his nose as he examined the plant in his hand closely. He didn’t so much as look up when he responded to Trish. ‘I removed the coding in the gene sequence that control enzymatic functions that trigger common modes of death from chemical attack, while at the same time I entirely removed genes that moderate the number of shoots that can grow per stalk. I removed the steric and the kinetic limitations. This stalk could essentially have any number of husks, and is only limited by space around the stalk and the amount of sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. In other words, this plant is doing exactly what I designed it to do.’
‘Wait. You didn’t add new any new genes?’
‘No, none,’ Marshall smiled so wide that Trisha could see his ears move back.
‘So these aren’t GMO?’
‘No. They are GEWTA. Gene edited without transgenic additives’
‘Same difference, Doctor Marshall.’
‘Technically, no. But the end result is similar. But better. I call it gene editing for short, hence GE, because we’ve essentially just edited the existing genetic profile without having added any foreign genes whatsoever. Trish, I need you to monitor these test rows carefully over the next few days. Make sure nothing goes wrong with their growth cycle. Meanwhile, I need to head back to the lab and reproduce these exact conditions. Pull all the other crops that aren’t showing the same results, make ready for as many more replicates of these as possible. I’ll bring you the new set of seeds to plant first thing in the morning. I need to talk to Scott and convince him to let us have an extra two weeks to confirm the result before he shuts us down.’ Marshall left the greenhouse in a rush and headed straight to his lab. As the door closed shut behind him he didn’t think as much about the breakthrough he had just observed for agriculture as much as he did that he might have a lead that can be used to edit the human genome to cure his wife’s ailment and prevent his children’s inheritance of that same genetic mutation that was beginning to make his wife’s life an absolute living hell. He knew he was still years away and he first had to demonstrate success in the greenhouse. Then on the farm. Marshall didn’t go home that night. He worked around the clock for the next three weeks.