Monday, June 11, 2007

Fun With Fungi

"There's noothin' more I cen do, Cap'n. Ahv tried everthin'. Radiation levels are at critical, and soon our skin will begin meltin' froom ahr boohns. I'm sorey, Cap'n, yer gunta havta fire me." Scotty hung his head in shame as he finally admitted the unthinkable. He really didn't have a magical solution to the radiation that was flooding the ship from the ruptured nuclear-coolant-injector. He had nothing involving a revolutionary new matter/anti-matter mixture, or reversing polarity on the containment fields, or even an alien technology he could graft into the Enterprise's systems on short notice which would somehow just happen to have a compatible operating system and a nuclear-coolant-injector-failure failsafe button. No, this time there was truly no hope.

Scotty wasn't alone in his inability to pull a routine miracle out of his engineer's hat. The rest of the crew was failing just as spectacularly. The red-shirts had already gone the way of all red-shirts. Sulu, Uhura, Chekov and O' Reilly had all gone mad from the radiation exposure, so they were equally useless, having already dismantled the ship's navigational and communication systems in an insane attempt to simulate a fifteenth-century karaoke bar. (The first thing that goes with radiation-induced madness apparently being awareness of the historical time-line.) Despite all his protestations that he was a doctor, not a lounge singer, Bones didn't have a miraculous injection to inoculate the crew from the radiation leak using a quadrotriticale-based tribble-blood extract, and even Spock, after a brief but disastrous attempt at a mind-meld with the nuclear-coolant-injector, had receded into an impotent lump, content to stroke tribbles and listen to Chekov's rendition of "Back in the USSR," while Rand tried to get everyone to look at her legs.

Although Kirk found it difficult to focus on anything but Rand's lower appendages, he knew that with the rest of the crew so incapacitated by inadequacy, it was up to him to save the ship. Again. (He also thought that when he got back to Star Fleet he ought to look into hiring some more competant officers, but that was only a fleeting notion.) Back to the task at hand--saving the ship. Again. (He started to play the mental tape about finding some new officers, but then he realised he had just done that.) Okay, really back to the task at hand now. He spent a few minutes looking conflicted and dramatic, ocassionally putting some very strong emphasis into his ongoing monologue. For some reason, dramatic monologues were the best way to kick-start his thought processes. He wasn't sure why, but he just seemed to be wired that way.

After a particularly lengthy and dramatic monologue, during which Uhura had enough time to give a stirring rendition of "Endless Love", and the trio of Chekov, Sulu and O'Reilly managed to throw together a fair performance of "Born to be Wild," suddenly, it came to him. Of course, why hadn't he thought of this before? He took just a moment for a manly pose, and then called down to his defeated engineer, "Scotty, release the fungi!" "Ehr yeh shoor, Cap'n? Ah dunna know what that'll doo." "Just do it, man," the Captain cried, "We've got no choice. It's the fungi, or death." "Aye Cap'n," Scotty said resignedly, and slowly his hand reached out and pressed the fungi-release-button.

What nonsense, you must be thinking (and if you're not, maybe you should go back and read the part about fifteenth-century karaoke.) Of course it's nonsense. Well, most of it anyway. Can you guess which part of our Star Trek adventure has any basis in the non-nonsensical world? I bet you can. It's the radiation-eating fungi, of course!! Believe it or not, there are actually three known forms of fungi that convert radiation to energy the same way plants convert sunlight to energy. The main difference between them is that plants use chlorophyl for the process of photosynthesis, while the fungi use melanin (you know, the stuff that determines your skin color) to perform what I suppose I must call "radiosynthesis."

David Ewing Duncan, at Technology Review (an MIT publication), explains that this radiation-eating fungi could prove a boon in many ways, including as a nuclear clean-up crew, a food source in space, and a new form of biofuel. Versatile little critters, eh? Who would've thought of fungi as a potential source for alternative energy? It'll be fun to watch where this one goes.

I probably should wrap up our space adventure now. Using the radiation-eating fungi, Kirk managed to stave off the imminent destruction, although not in time to avoid a very bad rendition of "Bitter Dregs," performed by Spock and the tribbles. Uhura is now headlining on Wriggley's Pleasure Planet, whenever the Enterprise heads into that region of space. Stay tuned for our next episode with Kirk and his crew (who do manage to hold onto their jobs, by the way), in which we will probably have to deal with what happens when the fungi, fed by massive amounts of radiation, grow to sentience and try to take over the Enterprise. For now, let's just say there won't be karaoke, but there will probably be lots of monologues, and Kirk will have to save the ship. Again.