Earlier this year, I entered the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) writing competition. The goal was to write a flash fiction story (not more than 700 words) for the prompt “How Microbiology will Change our Future.” While I did not win, I was very happy to be shortlisted in the top 10 submissions and my story, The Moralbiont, is now available on the FEMS website. Additionally, you will be able to read the story below. As the story was written for a microbiology audience, not everything within may be common knowledge. In a follow-up post I will explain the references, technologies and terms which are important for the story.
It was shortly after lunch when Olivia entered her grandfather’s study. He didn’t see her at first, too focussed on the old-fashioned, paper-thin, glass monitor on his desk.
“Kids today,” he grumbled, fingers tapping away at the keyboard with a slow but practised cadence that hinted at many years of experience. “You can’t just let the AI assemble the code, you have to check it!”
“Hi, grandpa,” greeted Olivia.
“Hmm? Oh! Hello there. What are you doing here?”
“Mom and Dad are going to some work thing, so I’m staying for the night!”
Her grandfather grunted in reply and resumed typing.
For the next few minutes, the room was quiet as Olivia wandered from shelf-to-shelf, standing on her tip-toes and poking her nose into everything. She was only allowed in her grandfather’s study when he was there and it was always filled with so many interesting objects: books, holograms and innumerable bottles of dead wood with mushrooms growing from them.
One book in particular, lying atop a pile of papers, caught her attention. There was nothing visually striking about it but, as she ran her finger along the cover, she noticed it felt different. Soft, tough and textured. She picked it up and showed her grandfather.
“This book feels funny.”
His eyes flicked up from the screen.
“My thesis. Nice, isn’t it? Cow skin. One hundred percent genuine cow skin.”
Olivia’s eyes widened and, as her face scrunched up, she dropped it.
“Eww! That’s gross! Why would you put dead stuff on a book?”
With a chuckle, her grandfather rose and walked over. He bent down, picked up the book and placed it back on the pile of papers.
“It’s not really covered with cow skin; it’s covered with mycelial leather. It’s made from fungi. From those mushrooms over there.” He pointed to a nearby glass jar. “Back then, I was studying how to improve the properties of mycelial leather so that we could stop using cow skin.”
Olivia rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. “People wouldn’t use cow skin!”
“They did. The world back then was very different to the one we have now. People would take the skin of dead cows and do all sorts of things with it. Sometimes they’d make shoes or bags. Sometimes they’d use it to cover a seat or a fancy book.”
“But cows are our friends!” objected Olivia.
“The world was a cruel place,” continued her grandfather. “Many people cut themselves off from the natural world. Perhaps it was just easier that way. If you believed that other animals didn’t think or feel, then you didn’t have to worry about how you treated them. So much was built on the suffering of others.”
He paused. Olivia was looking increasingly distressed at his story.
“But things changed! We perfected mycelial leather. Once it felt right, was stronger and… well, cheaper, people started to use it. Fungi were a big business. We couldn’t have made many of the changes we did without them.”
“Did you invent the mushrooms?” gasped Olivia, looking at a row of bottles, each with a different species growing inside.
“Invent them?” laughed her grandfather. “No! They were always there. We just didn’t use them well. For all our talk of modernity, a lot of our methods were still very crude.”
“Olivia!” called a voice from downstairs. “The cows are in the field. Do you want to go play?”
Olivia gave a happy squeal, “Coming!” and ran off. The conversation forgotten.
Her grandfather looked out from the window. He could see the field, a short distance away, with cows slowly ambling on to it. One of the very few herds left in the world. Someday Olivia would learn how people used to treat them and why society was obligated to care for them. But she was still too young for that.
Turning back to the room, her grandfather’s eyes swept over the bottled mushrooms he’d spent decades studying.
“All it took was to grow you on some wood chips. And you to overexpress one extra protein. Yet that ended so much suffering.”
As always, his mind flitted between ideas. From the first sip of beer, fungi had always been there, side-by-side with mankind, making our lives better. Then they helped us become better, more caring people.
“How do we even describe that?” he mused. “That’s beyond the holobiont. A moralbiont, perhaps?”