Outward: Chapter 7: Samples

There was a knock at the door. Dr. Anika Demitrios instinctively glanced up from her e-mail, even though the door was closed and she couldn’t see who was on the other side. “Yes?” she called.

The door cracked open, and Lindsey Wellington, one of her lab technicians, poked her head into the office. “Anika, do you have a minute?”

Dr. Demitrios quickly scanned the remaining subject lines. Nothing there that was any more urgent than normal. She pushed her chair away from the desk a few inches and leaned back. “Certainly. Come on in, Lindsey.”

Lindsey opened the door just wide enough to slip through and stood there, one hand still on the handle. “How familiar are you with the ’413 job?”

Dr. Demitrios furrowed her brow for a moment. Being the chief lab technician ironically meant she didn’t spend much time actually doing lab work. Her responsibilities these days mainly fell on assigning resources to the analysis projects that came in, making sure people were getting trained and staying certified, planning the next major equipment upgrade, that sort of thing. She didn’t normally read the job requests more than necessary to estimate how many person-hours to assign.

“Not very, I’m afraid,” Dr. Demitrios replied, as she began to lean forward again. “Hang on a moment and I can bring it up.”

“No, no, that’s all right,” Lindsey quickly replied. “It’s better if you don’t, actually. I need a second opinion on the cultures we made.”

“Oh. Is there something wrong with them?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to see what you think.”

Dr. Demitrios nodded and lifted herself out of her chair. “OK, let’s go take a look.”

Lindsey led her to Lab 3, where upon the central table she found a pile of petri dishes.

“Which one did you want me to look at?” Dr. Demitrios asked.

“All of them,” Lindsey replied.

“All of them?”

“All of them. They’re all from the same job.”

“And?”

“I’d like to see if you come to the same conclusion about all of them that Judit and I did.”

“And you don’t want to tell me anything else about them because you don’t want to bias my conclusions,” Dr. Demitrios guessed.

Lindsey nodded. “I’ll go run the dishes for ’427 over to the incubator while you look at those. I’ll be back in a bit.” She then busied herself loading up a cart with another set of dishes from a table along the wall.

Dr. Demitrios turned her attention to the task at hand. She picked up one of the dishes from the table and checked it. The contamination seal around the lid was still intact. She flipped it over to look at the label stuck onto the bottom of the dish. A random-looking five-character alphanumeric code was written on it in clear block letters with a thick black marker. She picked up a few more dishes and found them in the same shape.

Good work, she thought to herself. Lindsey hadn’t been with the lab for more than a few months, and already she was turning out to be a pro at this kind of work, following lab procedure to the letter. It wouldn’t be long before she started gunning for Dr. Demitrios’s own job.

Having finished the quick inspection, Dr. Demitrios set the other dishes back down to look at what was actually in the first one she had picked up off the pile. It looked like pretty typical bacterial growth: several big dark fuzzy splotches on the agar, with plenty of smaller, fainter dots in between. She didn’t need the microscope to guess that there would be bacteria to be found even in between the readily visible colonies. There wasn’t anything especially notable about the culture, no distinctive patterns or growths that would indicate a colony of any especially interesting type of bacterium.

She set the dish down on the table, away from the others, and picked up another one. Its contents were pretty much the same as the first: a textbook example of a bacterial culture. She found the same with the third dish, and the fourth.

The fifth, however, had a seemingly clean piece of agar in it. The contamination seal was intact, and it had a sample ID written on the underside. She placed it under the microscope and looked at it under low power. She then tried sliding the dish around a bit on the specimen tray, looking to see if there was anything on it too small to spot unaided. Nothing. She switched to medium magnification, then high. Still nothing. If not for the lack of the factory wrap around the dish, she would have assumed it hadn’t had a sample swabbed across it at all.

Dr. Demitrios made a quick check of some more dishes. Most of them showed the same general bacterial growth, while a couple more looked empty.

“Lindsey, are you sure you–?” she began, trailing off when she turned around and noticed that Lindsey had already left the lab for the incubator. Dr. Demitrios shrugged, then started partitioning the dishes into two piles, one for the colonized ones and one for the colony-free ones. Once she had finished triaging the original pile, she saw that the colonized pile was much larger than the colony-free pile.

She was about to put one of the colonized dishes under the microscope when she heard the door open behind her.

“So,” Lindsey asked, “what do you think?”

Dr. Demitrios paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. “Not knowing anything about what any of these were actually taken from…” she began.

“Yes, go on.”

“I would say that that these,” Dr. Demitrios continued, pointing to the large pile, “are all collections of run-of-the-mill bacteria. Pretty much what you’d find if you left it open on a counter overnight — well, not here, obviously, but at home or something like that — or if someone sneezed on it. I haven’t looked closely at any of them yet, but they don’t look particularly remarkable at first glance.”

Lindsey nodded, a grin starting to creep across her face. “And the other ones?”

“This pile,” Dr. Demitrios said, pointing to the smaller one, “looks like it’s the controls. Dishes that didn’t get swabbed at all, to make sure there wasn’t any contamination from our lab itself. Though I don’t know why anyone would make quite so many controls. Seems like it would be a little wasteful, actually,” she added, her lab manager responsibilities starting to creep into her assessment.

“Good, good,” Lindsey replied. She grabbed a clipboard from one of the other tables along the wall, then walked up to the small, clean pile. She started picking them up one by one, reading the sample ID on the bottom, and checking it against the list attached to the clipboard.

“So…?” Dr. Demitrios asked, wondering where it was Lindsey was going with all this.

“Hang on a second, I just want to double-check that these here are what I think they are.”

Dr. Demitrios watched as Lindsey worked her way through the pile. She had clearly given Lindsey the answer she had been hoping for. Dr. Demitrios wondered just what that meant.

“You are not going to believe this,” Lindsey announced after setting down the last of the dishes.

“I’m all ears.”

“’413 was a job to look for contaminants at a… farm somewhere upstate.”

“What kind of contaminants.”

“You name it,” Lindsey continued. “The customer checked off all the boxes, and next to the ‘Other’ blank, wrote ‘Everything else.’”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. So this was to see if there was any bacterial contamination in any of the samples taken by the customer at various points around the site, from ground zero out.”

“And you found nothing,” Dr. Demitrios guessed. “Across the board, you found nothing but normal bacteria across the entire site. Though that doesn’t explain how many control dishes you ran.”

“Nope!” Lindsey was nearly bouncing up and down with excitement at this point. “Only two of those are controls. The rest of the sterile dishes were the samples taken at ground zero of the site.”

“If there were contamination,” Dr. Demitrios thought aloud, starting down the path that Lindsey had already reached the finish line of, “that’s where it’d be strongest. No contamination, and it’d be the same across the board. But with negative contamination…”

“It gets better. Judit was running a PCR on some of the samples we received, to use the DNA to take a census of what was living in each one.”

“And?”

“They all came out the same. Ground zero and otherwise.”

“Which means…” Dr. Demitrios began, starting to see what was going on.

“Which means, whatever is at their ground zero killed all the bacteria that had been there originally, but didn’t spread out at all, suggesting an extremely local cause. And,” Lindsey added, waiting to see Dr. Demitrios’s reaction.

“There’s an and?” The finish line was in sight.

“The mass spectroscopy of those samples uncovered a few unidentified chemical compounds.” Lindsey grinned.

“Such as some novel, potent, broad-spectrum antibiotic,” Dr. Demitrios realized.

Lindsey nodded.

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

Dr. Demitrios couldn’t begin to imagine what had happened at this farm the customer was interested in where they feared contamination by something and wound up with the exact opposite, and apparently didn’t even know it. What she could understand, however, was the practical applications of a powerful antibiotic, if that’s what it truly turned out to be. It was still far too early to get one’s hopes up, of course; it could well be something that was lethal to anything. But even if that were the case, if they could figure out how the compounds worked, maybe it could be made more selective, to make it target only what they wanted. They’d also have to figure out a way to synthesize it, of course. But hey, even something that killed everything would make a terrific disinfectant.

“Lindsey,” Dr. Demitrios asked, “have you ever had your name on a billion-dollar patent?”


Chapter word count: 1,676 (+9)
Total word count: 12,422 / 50,000 (24.844%)

3 Responses

  1. Dun dun duuuuun….

    (Since you were a story whore I might have a vague idea of where this is going. ;)

  2. Pfft, you assume I haven’t changed my mind about stuff since I told you what I had in mind. Things change, you know.

  3. That’s why I said “might” and “vague”. I hate the taste of crow. :-D

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