Gut Feeling

A sci-fi short story first written in December 2015.

Lucy opened the fridge and pulled out the dark brown bottle, shaking it gently to hear the capsules inside rattle. She unscrewed the lid, tipped up the bottle and emptied a couple onto her palm. Rod-like capsules, pale brown in colour. They looked ordinary, benign – like any other run-of-the-mill probiotics you could buy. But Lucy knew these weren’t ordinary. Each capsule contained billions of bacteria, a strain she had developed. Lucy felt a stirring of butterflies in her stomach; this feat of genetic engineering was tremendous.

It was only a few decades ago that scientists had begun to realise the profound impact of microbes on humans. The first clues came with the observed correlation of mental illnesses and obesity with gut microbiota. Then scientists found “the second brain” – 100 million neurons lining the human gut, forming the enteric nervous system, connected to our brain via the vagus nerve. But this wasn’t a one-way connection. Biochemical signals from the gut and its bacterial inhabitants were affecting the brain.

Research into the human microbiome boomed. From influencing our physical and mental health, to our behavior and personality, our bacteria seemed to be an omnipresent, insidious force that had crept into every facet of our being. With symbiotic microbial cells outnumbering human cells ten to one, scientists began to ask questions about how “human” we actually were. The answer: no longer was a human a single organism. We were walking, talking ecosystems, each of us home to a population of single-celled species as unique as our fingerprint.

Lucy was captivated by this idea. She had grown up during an exciting period of scientific advancement, and wasn’t constrained by outdated concepts of humans as autonomous individuals. In Lucy’s mind, the ability to alter your microbiome offered limitless possibilities. Why perform complex neurosurgery when you could produce the same effect via the gut? The concept was straightforward enough in theory: with detailed knowledge of the biochemical pathways in the brain, you could genetically engineer bacteria to produce a specific cocktail of neurotransmitters. By administering these bacteria with an oral probiotic, you could influence the biochemistry of the brain. She dreamt of boosting memory and enhancing intelligence.

But she no longer had to imagine. With this simple pill Lucy held in her hand, it would be a reality. Lucy had tested her treatment in mice with promising results. Her latest experiment involved tracking the neurotransmitters in real-time as they travelled from the gut to the brain. She used protein biomarkers which fluoresced green, blue and red when they bound to the tiny but powerful neurotransmitters. Lucy felt a warm glow of pride radiate from her abdomen the first time she saw the colourful fluorescence illuminate. Her very first human trials were just around the corner. If successful, the consequences for mankind would be spectacular – it would usher in a new era of creativity and progress in science.

Lucy snapped out of her daydream. She returned the probiotics to the fridge and entered a glass-enclosed corner of the lab. A warm yeasty smell permeated the air – bacterial broth freshly mixed. She spent long hours in the lab and she liked it best at night when the lab was quiet, so she could think. She felt less pressure without the suspicious eyes of her labmates examining her every move. Sometimes she noticed them reading her lab book, or examining her experimental set-up closely. It made her uncomfortable, so she tried to avoid the busy times of day. Lucy felt an affinity for her bacteria and she raised them with great care. She watched the tall conical flasks swirling in the incubator. The shaking platform inside the glass case whirred and the brown liquid inside the flasks sloshed to and fro.

Behind Lucy, the glass door slid slowly open. A gentle whooshing as a draught entered alerted Lucy and she froze. Who else would be working this late?

“Hello, Lucy.”

It was Martin, the lab leader. Lucy turned slowly to face him. Martin was short and stocky, with horn-rimmed glasses and a cardigan slung over his shoulders. She didn’t particularly like Martin, who had an air of superiority and an egotism that didn’t sit well with her. He spent most of the day in his office talking loudly and guffawing with the other “old boys” who still occupied the upper echelons in chemistry. Progress for women in Lucy’s field had come more slowly than others. Nonetheless, Lucy tolerated Martin because his lab was well-stocked and he gave her a great deal of freedom in her research.

“Hello, Martin.”

Lucy noticed the bottle of acid in Martin’s hand and she felt her stomach butterflies flicker – an unpleasant, foreboding flickering.

“I’ve been following your progress Lucy, and I have to say, I’m very impressed. You’ve got further than I expected with this project.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. But I have some bad news Lucy. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to continue with this avenue of inquiry any further.”

Lucy frowned, taken aback. “But why? I’m so close. I don’t understand.”

“You see Lucy, you’ve gotten a little too far for my liking. Your intentions for this technology don’t really, ah, gel with my vision.”

Lucy stared, speechless. Her intentions had been nothing but noble.

Martin continued, “I like the premise. An oral probiotic to alter the mind. So simple and elegant. Brilliant, even. “

Martin flung the open bottle of acid at Lucy’s face and she recoiled in excruciating pain as it burned her face and chest. She collapsed, writhing on the floor. Martin turned to the conical flasks whirling madly in the incubator. His lips contorted into a smirk.

A few mornings later, Martin sat in his office and opened the local newspaper. In the corner of page five was a brief article.

“Scientist injured in lab accident.

Dr Lucy Johnston, scientist with Labrax Pharmaceuticals, was in an accident last week while working late at the Labrax Laboratory. A chemical spill, involving highly corrosive hydrochloric acid, occurred at about 11pm. Dr Johnston’s colleague, Professor Martin Bourke, was in a nearby office at the time and was able to call for medical assistance. ‘This is a terrible accident and all of us here at Labrax wish Dr Johnston a speedy recovery. The company will be doing everything possible to assist Dr Johnston, including taking care of her medical expenses,’ said Professor Bourke. Dr Johnston is said to be in a stable but serious condition at a private hospital. The Health and Safety department of Labrax Pharmaceuticals is investigating the incident.”

Lucy awoke in a daze. Her face was covered in bandages, save for a slit for her eyes. From her restricted view, she could see a hospital room – all white, sterile with glaring fluorescent light. She tried to move her arms and legs but they were restrained. Her mind felt fuzzy, black and white static.

Crisp footsteps signaled the approach of someone, but she couldn’t see. A hand gently moved the bandages near her mouth, and pressed a rod-like capsule between her lips. She swallowed.

Martin entered the room and addressed the white-coat-clad person tending to Lucy, “How’s our subject coming along?”

“Excellent. She really had done a fantastic job – just a few tweaks to genes here and there and we’re fairly certain we’ve got a product capable of altering thoughts. The trials this week will confirm we have established control.”

Martin felt an anticipatory fluttering in his stomach. Why settle for advertisements and pop culture to influence psychology, when you could so easily get right at the brain itself? He imagined controlling vast populations using mere suggestion. The consequences for the elite of mankind would be spectacular. It would usher in a new era of power and wealth. Soon, he’d no longer have to imagine.