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Spec Tech: A Biology Lexicon for the Twenty-First Century

November 17, 2011

This piece is inspired by J. G. Ballard’s “Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century,” originally published in Zone in 1992, and later collected in A User’s Guide to the Millennium in 1996. I’ve added links for some of the more specific scientific references.

Biofuel. Soylent green.

Cancer. Immortality at the cost of your life.

Cat. A domesticated feline that lacks the gene encoding Fel d 1. Visitors to zoos are cautioned that tigers and lions may still trigger an allergic response, such as watery eyes and a snuffly nose, as these creatures are truly wild type.

Clones. Siblings. The only difference from identical twins is that their cowlicks point in the same direction.

Darwinism. Its founder sainted by the end of the nineteenth century, the church split into rival orthodox and neo factions by the end of the twentieth. Still you won’t find a scientist or a school kid who doesn’t turn for emotional support to that totemic Moses-like image under moments of duress. As the saying goes: “There are no creationists in fox-holes.”

Dictionary. Your genome.

Dinosaur. A genetically-engineered chicken. Leash laws were instituted following unprovoked attacks on children and pit bulls.

Evolution. The deterministic engineering of our future selves.

Frankenstein. The godfather of soul.

Gay gene. Introduced by the Indian government as a means to curb population growth, traces of the viral vector have been detected in the soft-drinks sold at the Bollywood epic Our Friends from Frolix 8, accounting for the immediate and broad dissemination of the infective DNA into the general populace. The resulting shift in sexual orientation was later attributed to a placebo effect when sequencing of the vector revealed that it did not contain an insert after all.

Gene. The ghost in the machine that outlives the machine itself.

Genetic engineering. Boggle played at the molecular level.

Genetically-modified organism. A redundant phrase (a pleonasm).

Intelligent design. Ikea takes on its greatest challenge, ready-to-assemble humans at an affordable price. The stylish product rapidly supplants previous domestic arrangements involving marriage and children. Friends are now also considered optional.

Mitosis. A dance in which you start off alone but wind up partnered with yourself.

Omics. Genomics. Proteomics. Transcriptomics. Metabolomics. This suffix can transform any word into an area of scientific study. With the advent of inexpensive sequencing, I anticipate such studies to move from the general to the particular, and hereby inaugurate the new field of Schalleromics.

Teetotaler. A relatively simple genetic modification, since humans already have the gene encoding alcohol dehydrogenase. All that was needed was the introduction of the gene for pyruvate decarboxylase, and the pathway for converting pyruvate to ethanol was complete. The brave pioneers of perpetual inebriation were called teetotalers because they no longer needed to consume alcohol to get drunk. Of course the pathway was only active under conditions of oxygen deprivation, so the teetotalers ran until they dropped, then they got up and ran some more.

Typewriter. A paperweight following the bankruptcy of Smith Corona Corporation in 1995, typewriters have now been repurposed as high-end computer keyboards. Advertized as a “groundbreaking innovation in the field of obsolescence,” in my mind’s eye I see a young scientist hunched over a stripped down model on which only the keys for A, T, C, and G remain, manually reprogramming all three-billion letters of the human genome.

Ubik. See Virus.

Virus. Philip K. Dick. Who would have guessed that he would become endemic to Hollywood?

Woo-suk wives. Women, who lured under the false pretense of a casting photo-shoot for the latest Phil Dick extravaganza, have their eggs stolen and then sold on the Black Market for stem cell production.

Word. Gene. As in, “I don’t understand kids and their use of language nowadays. Back when I was young, a word was a word was a word. Now they can be used to mean almost anything. Why not dispense with the dictionary altogether? I mean, did you see little Ralph when he came over trick-or-treating. Red skin, with a tail and horns. That wasn’t even a costume. That was him.”

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