Copyright 2023, Jack Bellis
All Rights Reserved
This is a movie treatment inspired by the scientific research that is genuinely trying to find a biochemical mechanism to stop the aging process built into our DNA… not skin balms or longevity elixirs, but a chemical change to our biology. It will happen, perhaps by 2050 and none of us is able to stop it. Just email jackbellis at hotmail if you’d like to purchase the rights.
Mankind finally gets past the taint of quackery, and unlocks the secret to the fountain of youth but gets a bit of a shocker… the solution is contagious! And one-by-one, various species contract ‘the cure,’ wreaking havoc of unimaginable proportions. Will someone save the day?
Synopsis (360 words)
After a 50-year quest, the cure for aging is discovered by a global research team across Europe, the US, and Fiji, where genetic experimentation is not as regulated. It turns out to be exactly like the metaphorical fountain-of-youth, in that not only is aging stopped… it is reversed. When given the medicine, the body reverts to its biologically ideal age — now known as one’s ‘DNA age’ — the age at which one is most vigorous, most able to bring its offspring to maturity, to perpetuate the species.
After the initial euphoria, mixed with all of the fears around the consequences, foremost being overpopulation, reports come in of an unusual phenomenon in a remote area of Florida: an entire section of the Everglades has been decimated, leveled to unvegetated marshland, with a thick organic ooze covering it. The shocking discovery is made, known only to the original scientists, that the aging ‘cure’ has jumped to another species, an insect that eats grasses. It’s a fruit fly of sorts, one that ordinarily lives only a few days. But it now lives indefinitely, with its cellular, biological clock turned off. Apparently its population has multiplied exponentially in a matter of weeks, or maybe days. And it has eaten the entire biota of the region until there was no more food suitable for its digestive system, whereupon the species finally died off, leaving a desolate, rotting wasteland covered in decomposing death. The ooze is surprisingly similar to the oil that Man has mined for 100 years, and burned until we ultimately choked ourselves on carbon dioxide; is this exactly how the guano accumulated hundreds of millions of years ago, creating the crude oil we became so gluttonously addicted to??? Could the dinosaurs — and perhaps many other less prominently fossilized species — have ‘solved’ aging (not by medicine but a mere hiccup in evolution)… and killed themselves by denuding the entire Earth? Will that be our fate as well? Today it’s the Florida fruit fly, but that’s only noticeable because its lifespan is days. Have other species caught the ‘disease’ of never dying too? How long will we have to wait to notice the next species? And what will it eat into oblivion?
Magazine-Length Story (3600 words)
July 25, 2073
“Sixteen point four! Sixteen point four! We did it!”
Chief scientist Scott Banks screamed it out, almost loud enough to be heard beyond the shores of the remote Pacific island, Koora Cara, where the biotech lab was located. He had pored over the latest column of data spit out by the devices, looking as he’d done for the last three years for one simple measurement to pay off… to exceed the value of sixteen percent… to pinpoint a substance that would activate the body’s cellular enzyme responsible for regulating cell health. More precisely you would say that the enzyme was responsible for regulating cell death, because that’s how the mechanism seems to work: in the ‘cellular theory of aging,’ individual cells die over time, and in turn degrade the body until it can’t survive any more. Stop the death of the cells and you stop the death of the organism. Achieving 16-percent improvement, to the best of their belief based on the last sixty years of work, meant the goal was attained, and — if you can get past the taint of quackery that the mere phrase engenders — the prospect of the ‘fountain of youth’ was in sight… not just in the distance, but right up close.
3 Weeks Earlier, July 4, 2073
Dr. Marielle Satori looked over her shoulder, perhaps only instinctively since it was almost midnight and she had already checked that no one was in the lab. She slowly squeezed the plunger on the syringe, injecting three cc’s from candidate batch 8746 into her arm. She put everything away and checked her itinerary on her phone.
Dubai, Azores, Florida. TED Talk on Thursday. Return via Paris and Sri Lanka. She turned off the lights, set the alarm, and went to her room. The remote Pacific was as idyllic as it was unreachable, chosen for its distance — geographically, politically, and regulatorily — from the rest of the world’s genetic moralists and the US FDA in particular. Satori and her group could explore the distant shores of biomedical discovery for what might justifiably be called mankind’s final frontier: the fountain of youth. What else would even be in the running for this top billing? Certainly the allure of interstellar travel beckons, but most scientists have agreed for years that barring time travel, it was unachievable. We were stuck here on Earth, or at least in our solar system… never to reach any so-called Goldilocks planets however near they appeared to our telescopes. Not gonna happen.
But endless youth, that was appearing to more and more experts to be mere cellular mechanics. Since the advent 50 years ago of gene editing with crisper (now homogenized into conventional phonetic spelling), the progress has been relentless even if slow… even if the results have seemed pitiful compared to the goal: not aging.
Florida, August 4, 2073
Satori looked in the mirror and checked her hair and makeup. She stared at the small mole on her chin that she had seen for as many of her 37 years as she could remember. Was it different? No, don’t be an idiot. But something didn’t look right. Hadn’t it been bluer or grayer?
She realized she had lost track of time and looked at her phone, then got moving to the arena. She was the main presenter and got up on stage promptly at ten.
“Thank you everyone. I’m Marielle Satori and I’m here to tell you why your children, even possibly you, will stop getting old and why that will be a good thing.
I’ll get right to it. There are four pillars to my argument that agelessness is inevitable, and that we are on the precipice of this long-dreamed-of goal.
One: God, or if you choose, Mother Nature, does not prevent it, and I’ll step you through some examples.
Two: We understand why we age and how it works, and this science goes back 70 years now.
Three: We have the tools, from gene editing to cell manipulation to drug synthesis.
Four: We just need to zero in on the mechanism to regulate the cells’ self-destruction clock.
Back at the lab, Banks was going over the results with the team. They examined every step of the process like drill sergeants tormenting a recruit. But no step looked flawed. The results were ironclad. With Satori unreachable they nonetheless cracked the long-stored case of champagne and drank themselves delirious, as they had always agreed they would.
But measurable success at the level of cellular chemistry was still presumed to be a long, long way from drugstore shelf. In vitro to in vivo. It could be as distant as the Atlantic and Pacific. Would all cells respond equally? Would the feared relationship between cell growth and cancer prove well-deserved? Would the effect wear off? Would the metabolic vector be elusive? And then there was the politics. Was it time to publicize the the Earth-shaking discovery, or wait for more confirmation and methodology to be established??? The team knew that was Satori’s call and they would wait for her to return. There was a reason they were 1800 kilometers from the nearest island and they all leave their satellite phones at the dock. Yes, they could retrieve them to make calls whenever they wanted but the discipline was the point. For the meantime, their scientific protocol was clear: now was the time to finally enjoy their oceanic Eden and wait for the boss. They promised.
Satori continued the TED talk, with the audience alternating between looks of incredulous but wishful belief and the occasional snickers that typically attend the taint of quackery.
“I said that God or Mother Nature does not prevent agelessness and there are many examples. Even if we start only with incremental examples as opposed to absolute agelessness, there are trees that live thousands of years and animals like the Greenland shark that is on record at 473 years. By many accounts, turtles don’t age but only die by predation. Some jellyfish can revert to youth upon life-threatening attacks. And single-cell animals don’t age, they just get eaten. But the most fascinating example seems to be the reproductive cells in our own bodies; they do not seem to age. That explains why men can sire offspring well into what is otherwise the age of decrepitude.
“Pillar two was that we understand the mechanism. Over the years, there have been many theories, and some experts still think aging is a hopelessly complex phenomenon… a biochemical Gordian Knot. But through all the research we keep coming back to the simple bank account that controls the demise of individual cells. One theory uses the analogy of tickets; each cell is given 125 tickets at birth, and uses them continuously throughout life. When all 125 are gone, it’s over.
“The third pillar is that we have the tools. You’ve all seen the progress we’ve made tackling one genetic disease after another with gene sequencing and targeted therapies. The tools of anti-aging work are these same tools. And that leaves us with pillar 4: we can measure the effect that substances have on telomeres and the incremental payoff in cell longevity. We know it will take 16-percent activation of the telomerase enzyme to get the body to maintain a state of cellular agelessness. It’s like achieving escape velocity to get into orbit around a heavenly body. We’ve tested several hundred thousand substances and have gotten close but not 16 percent. It’s just a matter of time.
Satori sat in the airport lounge and watched the news feed half-heartedly. It was a mix of stories that had been cataclysmic a half a century ago but were now routine. Fires raced across several northern countries, now slowed slightly by massive firebreaks with chemical counter-explosions that deliberately steal as much oxygen as possible from the fire. It’s not perfect but it helps. Then there were the stories of low-lying populations migrating en masse, most recently Portugal and some Mediterranean shores. (Venice was long gone, with its dearest shrines moved brick-by-brick elsewhere.) She boarded the plane as the next story started, about the latest island to succumb to even a small wave system caused by the latest cleaving of a Greenland glacier.
Satori made a leisurely return to the lab, starting with a quick visit with her niece and nephew on Florida’s west coast, then taking a day or two at each layover to ease the jet lag. Paris was uneventful: stops at her two favorite restaurants and a quick visit with a friend. But in Sri Lanka she finally got to visit the Udawalawe National Park, renowned for its biodiversity, and it didn’t disappoint. Elephants, peacocks, jackals, water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, and deer roam openly in abundance. She made it back to the lab in six days, where she encountered ear-to-ear grins that she knew could mean only one thing: success.
After the shared euphoria wore off, the inevitable tug-of-war between science and marketing took over. Banks, an academic down to his sweat glands, insisted that they owed it to Mankind to publish immediately. Satori, to no one’s surprise, was steadfast in charting a business course. She wanted to wait until some simple — relatively speaking in a field where nothing is even remotely simple — experiments could get them closer to having absolute unassailable marketing hegemony. Only then would she be satisfied releasing the news. And Banks knew this would be the case all along… and knew that was what he had signed on for.
The idea was to test the protocol on some organisms with lifespans of only a few days to verify the effects. As usual the challenge is to extrapolate from such organisms to the higher lifeforms, let alone mammals. But that is what they set out to do… in fact the freedom to do so is exactly why they worked on a spit of land in the middle of the biggest ocean. Work started on some microscopic creatures barely deserving of membership in the kingdom of ‘animals,’ and a smattering of more undeniable members. They all agreed that in a matter of two weeks they should have results that would at least get Satori to step two of her decision-making process… publish or keep working.
A week in, after the microorganisms showed agelessness where previously they had not, the satellite news showed yet another cataclysmic story that only global warming could seemingly have written: an entire region of the Florida Everglades had been obliterated… reduced to a pool of ooze approximately 200 miles in diameter. It was as if the entire biota was putrefied or metabolized at high speed, cooking all of the living matter and rendering it into an oil-like puddle where once there were countless acres of plants and animals. Watching the news in their entertainment theater, Banks turned to Satori: “Weren’t you just near there? No signs of anything troubling? How could it have happened so fast?” Satori just shook her head, with a thousand-mile-stare.
Back in her room, Satori. Was lost in thought. When she brushed her teeth, she looked again at that mole on her chin — the one she saw for over 30 years — and dropped her toothbrush in the sink. The mole was gone. And then she thought more carefully about the Everglades.
Since the earliest days of anti-aging biochemistry — popularized in the early 2000’s by the resveratrol in red wine — there have been three great questions that have inspired feverish debates in the field. Number one is whether anti-aging therapy will simply stop the decrepitude of aging (at whatever age it is taken), or will it actually reverse your age to a younger, more vital you? Will it really be the fountain of youth… even for now-older people? The two camps even have names, the reversalists and the absolutists. Most in the field seem to think that any possible therapy will simply prevent further decrepitude at the cellular level. A person old enough to have arthritis, will still have arthritis after even “the ultimate anti-aging medicine.” Makes sense: if all we’re doing is stopping cells from aging, all we know we’re doing is stopping the whole body from aging. The reversalists, on the other hand, have this argument: we’re stopping the cells from aging, but in doing so we are restoring the totality of the body’s cells, as they get replaced by new cells — about 100 days to replace almost every cell in your body, to their original DNA recipe state. Over time the body will revert back to the age at which you were most complete and most physically vigorous. You might call it your “DNA age.” It represents all of what your DNA encoded for 3D-printing in flesh-and-blood. How old were you when you were most physically able to bring a new generation to the point where they could in turn usher in another generation? That’s your personal DNA age. Satori leaned toward reversalism; Banks toward absolutism.
Satori pondered the staggering possibility. If her mole was gone, was batch 8746 possibly the one? Had it reversed her age just enough to replace the mole’s cells with more routine, virgin epithelium… the cells that a more perfect DNA recipe would have spelled out? And could her presence near the Everglades even remotely be involved in the catastrophe there? No, that’s unthinkable.
But in the morning she broke the news to Banks that she injected 8746. And she mentioned the mole. Banks wasn’t buying it; no relation, just the wonders of nature, he posited. Satori, however, couldn’t get it out of her head that she was getting younger.
Satori cut right to the chase. “What if 8746 is already working on me, and what if — yes, it’s idiotically preposterous — what if it’s contagious? What if our “therapy” actually behaves more like a disease, and it was …”
She trailed off and Banks picked up where she left off. “What if an organism in Florida contracted it, and the weird devastation in the Everglades was somehow related? Hmmm. It would mean that an organism might have “contracted immortality” from you— a bug bite perhaps — and all of its species multiplied out of control. The species ate themselves out of a biota in about 10 generations, maybe a few weeks for some insects, leaving a barren wasteland. It sort of brings a whole new, scarier connotation to the word ‘generation.’ The Everglades was now filled with biological detritus that decomposed rapidly in the heat and is now on its way to becoming a big lake of oil, not unlike the process that created all of the crude oil we extract from its creation eons ago.”
Satori: “Maybe the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct because of a meteorite after all. Maybe they died from… immortality. Or more likely, some smaller creature with a short generational interval figured out the answer to aging — or its DNA did, to be more precise — and it deforested the Earth so fast that the larger animals died before the cycle ended… before the newly immortal species ate itself into extinction. Just like in Florida. And Mother Nature said, ‘Well, that wasn’t such a great experiment, let’s not do that again.’ ”
Banks: “And you’re saying that all of our oil is just the decomposed biomass of the short cycle of mass extinction back when the dinosaurs disappeared? And that’s what we’re seeing in a small scale in Florida, and it confined itself to a single species and a single region?”
They looked at each other and simultaneously dropped their chins, because they knew what it implied for their work, their dream: it might have caused a mass extinction in weeks, albeit geographically confined.
The second great question among anti-aging researchers was: “If the reversalists were right, what about the brain? Would you lose all of the knowledge you acquired from the time of your DNA age to the time at which you took the medicine?” Even the reversalists were optimistic that the synapses once created would be retained. But when you see a mole on your face disappear, it’s hard not to think even the brain construction could be “cleaned up” like a zit.
The third question in anti-aging was overpopulation; what the hell would we do with so many people. The popular answer is that we’re already confronted with overpopulation, so we have to solve the problem no matter what. Well, if Satori and Banks’ fear about the Everglades was true, then the answer for lesser species is clear: overpopulation will run on hyperdrive until absolute havoc, then collapse.
While Satori and Banks considered their path forward, possibly visiting Florida to try to evaluate any empirical evidence, news came of yet another bio event. They watched with stunned silence as a news story told of crocodiles out of control in the Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka, the place Satori stopped at on the way back. But crocs have a reproductive cycle of months so it didn’t make sense that agelessness had compounded yet. In this case, however, there were reports, still unconfirmed, that the crocs were larger than usual. Now they had to consider if batch 8746 was conferring something other than mere longevity. Was it causing the endocrine system — in crocodiles at least — to lose its grip?
Satori decided to start with Florida. She told Banks to go investigate it. Satori didn’t want to risk being seen at the Florida site since the press could make headlines of her appearance… and tie it to possible aging work. It could only be bad. And she secretly worried about transmitting more ‘disease’ on another trip. She told Banks, “Take Simmons with you. It’s no secret you two are an item.” Dr. Evelyn Simmons was their biomolecular synthesis scientist, and yes, Banks’ close associate, so to speak. In a few hours they were on the foundation’s private jet on the way to Florida, with only one piece of equipment: a genome sequencer. Once the size of a refrigerator, it was now the size of breadbox whatever that is.
Forty-eight hours later they were testing the detritus on the edge of the Everglades disaster zone. It only took another 6 hours to find exactly what they feared. It was in the DNA of a small amphibious bug, not much bigger than a pinhead. In batch 8746, like all their candidate batches, they had installed a telltale marker in non-coding DNA to identify it. (Not all base pairs in DNA have known purposes; some are even known to be non-functional, and they used some of these just to “sign their work” in a fashion.) They called Satori with the news.
They agreed that the working theory was that the therapy had behaved like a contagious vector. But by all appearances, the fire burned itself out with no more damage than a quadrant of the country being Chernobyled. In the 2070’s such disasters are routine. They would move on to Sri Lanka.
In the Udawalawe, they were greeted by very appreciative local scientists who had the carcass of one of the oversize crocs. This one was 25 feet, considerably longer than the typical limit of 20 feet for saltwater crocs. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, the sequencer spit out the same news. The non-coding 8476 signature was there. What was going on here? Was there a theme of amphibians? Crocs aren’t amphibians, though. They’re reptiles, meaning their eggs are laid on land, and some other distinctions. Did it matter? One way or another, the effect of the telomere strategy wasn’t as simplistic as had been hoped. Here in Sri Lanka, the effect was not simply to revert the individual to the prime of life, but to — apparently — confuse the endocrine system. And this outbreak had neither burned itself out nor been confined… other than the fact that it was on an island.
Banks and Satori spoke that evening. Banks told Satori he had a plan: all during his research back at the lab, he had surreptitiously worked on a counter-medicine, an antidote, or vaccine if you will. There’s a lot of down time waiting for assays, so he tried to use his time productively. Satori rolled her eyes hearing this news, but she realized the joke was on her. She had hired the best and brightest. Could she expect anything less? Banks explained that he had in fact made a candidate sample batch, but he’d need a lot more… enough to spray from a helicopter over the entire population of Udawalawe crocs. And hopefully it would work. He told Satori where the protocol was and waited for her to send the substance.
It took three days for the package to arrive. Banks and Simmons had plenty of time to argue about the ethics and wisdom of what they pursued… and had unleashed. Simmons had been a good soldier but had increasingly harbored doubts as the years at the lab went on. She was a few years younger than Banks, not yet within sight of retirement. But those years are big, making one start understanding mortality in personal terms. Once Banks got the anti-aging fever, it was even harder for his aging eyes to see any other light. Seeing the darkness of what they almost certainly caused, however, that was stronger than anyone’s power of debate. This was crazy shit, and he knew it. Yes, they might be smart enough to tinker with Mother Nature’s greatest creation, DNA, but that didn’t mean they were quite smart enough to improve it. They were both somewhat settled on the notion that it might be best if no one ever learned the ‘success’ of batch 8476 or the science that brought it into the world.
They got the anti-anti-aging antidote finally, and were quickly airborne, in local military planes. They dusted the entire park, landed, and prayed. Crocodiles that never stop growing can make even the most cold-blooded scientist religious. They went to the lounge in the hangar where they could find a private place to call Satori. The news was on the TV and they both stopped dead in their tracks, hearing the story of the latest island to get threatened. The small Pacific atoll of Koora Cara was completely submerged by a storm surge and there were no survivors. Banks and Simmons looked at each other with an expression equal parts grief and relief, knowing it had made their decision for them.