Episode II: Investigation
Chapter 2: New Sapenza
Kirk was piloting the shuttle towards the New Sapienza spaceport. What kind of scientific experiments would suffer interference from the use of transporters? Of course he knew there could be some, like sensitive subspace measurements, but for these they'd normally use small remote asteroids as lab sites. He massaged his neck, trying to relieve the stiffness he felt. Their quick stopover to collect Doctor John Smith was going to take longer than he had planned for. At least it was a chance to pilot a ship by himself, even if it's just a shuttle.
The planet below shone with purple seas and orange-y continents. He knew the unusual colors were due to the introduction of varied microorganisms, algae, lichens and moss, specially adapted to the environment, and used to convert the soil, seawater and atmosphere towards ones compatible with humanoid biology. But the planet still looked odd. The atmosphere had already been cleared from most noxious gases, but it wasn't breathable yet, with only trace amounts of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide. Therefore all the population was still living in domes, all of them concentrated in the only area in the southern continent that wasn't completely orange-tinted. A buffer zone was kept around the inhabited area, to prevent the mosses from happily dissolving the building materials in the same way they were eating up the surface rocks. Therefore, from this height, the New Sapienza University town showed as a light sandy-colored patch, with circular structures corresponding to the domes, interlinked by the thin darker lines of the surface transportation system.
Spock and McCoy had been talking since they entered the shuttle. He barely understood half of what they're saying. Histone analogs, three-dimensional molecular folding, he knew the words but he didn't understand their significance. But it was obvious that Spock understood, at least enough to ask relevant questions. And McCoy seemed happy to explain. He hadn't missed the fact that his two friends were talking animatedly and not arguing between them. Well, if he discounted the barbs from the good doctor and the dry rejoinders from the Vulcan.
"Of course," McCoy was saying, "the Cemery virus wasn't studied extensively until its symbiosis with the Omya brambles was discovered, and the nucleosome knot identified as a viral component. It's almost as if the brambles use the virus to wage biological warfare on competing plant life. Finch's team made the breakthrough in mapping how the interaction between the plant and the virus is mediated by phytohormones. The virus infects and kills off most other plant species, opening whole areas for colonization by the bramble seedlings. It's also active in the seedlings, enabling them to produce a toxin that protects them from grazing animals. But it's inactive in the mature shrub until a specific hormone is produced by the plant under stressful conditions. That hormone is also what stops vegetative growth and initiates the blooming of the shrubs to produce the seeds which in turn will carry the virus when dispersed by the wind."
"Fascinating," Spock replied. "Is it the hormone that unpacks the DNA?"
"No, in fact, it deactivates the plant protein that interacts with the viral histones to keep the DNA tightly folded up. Unfolded, the DNA can be copied and rearranged by the Aphred protein complex, which Finch describes in the paper."
"Impressive. So, the multiple additional messenger RNA are in fact extracted from a single DNA strand, in a way completely unrelated to how eukaryotic organisms achieve the same result."
"Yes, and that's the same reason why the nucleosome knot was initially misidentified," McCoy explained. "Most of it looks like non-coding DNA, which is quite rare among viruses. It's only the viral Aphred proteins, whose code the brambles incorporated into their own DNA, that are able to read and transcribe it. That's also how the plant manages to keep the virus under control." Kirk assumed all these words made some sense to the two of them, because he'd lost the train of thought a long time ago. Of course, he'd never bothered to spend much time studying microbiology.
"It's a very complex interaction. This DNA transcription process resembles the way text and image files can be compressed to use up less space."
"Of course your logical Vulcan mind would resort to computer parallels," the doctor complained, with no real heat. "But it's true. What's unique to the Cemery virus is its way of packing the information. It's not as if it couldn't carry enough DNA to code for all the proteins it needed. But the nucleosome knot also serves as the starting point for the assembly of the viral particles, so it's not surprising it's so well preserved."
"There is still one question you haven't answered, Doctor."
"And what is it, Spock?"
"What is the relation between the Cemery symbiotic virus and the Galinedorian flu virus?"
"Ah yes, the flu virus also presents a tightly folded, non-coding strand of DNA, at least as complex as the Cemery nucleosome knot. You see," McCoy said excitedly, "I've sequenced the complete viral DNA, while dissecting the virus to try to identify its origin, and I was curious about that non-coding stretch. I couldn't understand what it was doing there, or how it managed to avoid deletion, as eventually happens to any non-coding viral DNA. But it wasn't until you brought me that article that it finally clicked to me. It must perform some function in whatever species is the primary host for the virus."
"Would that be the Galinedorians, Doctor?"
"It's possible, but when I requested Starfleet Medical to ask for help from the Galinedorian government, they were refused. The Galinedorians seem to be very private about medical issues. Of course we can collect samples and look for the virus ourselves, but the Federation envoy was wary of angering the Galinedorians, and Starfleet Medical isn't sufficiently concerned about the virus to press the issue. Besides, everyone else is now worried about those Schreter infectious boils, even though they're only dangerous in extreme circumstances, so I think it's up to me to research it." And he launched into a detailed description of all the experiments he was already doing or planning to start, while Spock would sometimes make suggestions that were in fact taken into consideration by Doctor McCoy.
Kirk was filled with wonder, watching the two actually discussing something constructively. McCoy was a brilliant thinker in his own field. He could have followed a scientific career, but he'd rather treat patients and save lives. All that gruff exterior and poor bedside manners hid a warm, caring soul. Anyway, with his wide medical knowledge and curiosity he liked to keep abreast of the latest medical advancements and discoveries. That meant he and Spock had that in common, something which wasn't shared by their captain.
There was also the civilian clothes worn by both of them, of course, while he was still dressed in his uniform. They were both looking very much like researchers going to a conference, especially Spock with his Vulcan Academy robes. His first officer had warned him to change to casual clothing before they left. As they were boarding the shuttle, he'd asked why the captain hadn't followed his recommendation. "This is a university, and at New Sapienza in particular they don't like uniforms," Spock'd said. He'd replied he'd forgotten, but in fact he really hadn't wanted to do it. He was Starfleet, and there shouldn't be any need to hide it while in a Federation colony.
At that moment the spaceport traffic controller called, directing them to land at Bay 15. Kirk flew their shuttle expertly into the designated spot, watching curiously the assortment of small spaceships and shuttles lined up in the spaceport parking spaces. For a distant colony, there was quite a lot of traffic coming to New Sapienza. He hoped they'd find Doctor John Smith quickly and leave as soon as possible.