“Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware. He’s clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves, and his Giacometti body hunches forward as if in prayer. A gray but still-thick Beatles mop hangs in his eyes.
He studies a book on the gear-cluttered workbench. In one hand-a single-channel pipette, raked like a dagger. From a tiny refrigerated vial, he sucks up no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm. This pellet goes into a tube no bigger than a mouse’s muzzle, a dollop so small he can’t be sure it’s really there. His gloved hands shake as he shoots the used pipette tip into the trash.
More liquids go from the beakers into the dollhouse cocktail: oligo primers to start the magic; heat-stabilized catalyzing polymerase; nucleotides that fall in line like enlisted men for a five a.m. reveille, a thousand bonds per minute. The man follows the printed recipe like an amateur cook.
The brew goes into the thermal cycler for twenty-five rounds of roller-coaster flux, swinging between near-boiling and tepid. For two hours, DNA melts and anneals, snatches up free-floating nucleotides, and doubles each time through the loop. Twenty-five doublings turn a few hundred strands into more copies than there are people on Earth.
Outside, budding trees submit to the whims of a light wind. A wave of holdout nightjars skim the air for bugs. The do-it-yourself genetic engineer removes a colony of bacteria from his incubator and sets it under the laminar flow hood. He stirs the flattened culture flask and dispenses the loosened cells into a twenty-four-well sample plate. This plate goes under a microscope, at 400x. The man puts his eye up to the lens and sees the real world.“