Your DietBet Destroyed the World

DISCLAIMER: This is fiction. The views expressed here are those of a fictional character, not me.

The mass extinctions began in early summer last year – as far as we can tell.

Mosquitos were the first to make headlines, but not for the reasons you’d expect. People were happy they were gone. Thrilled, even. Good riddance to the world’s most annoying organism. Few people asked why they died. Fewer still were interested in getting answers.

There were, of course, the scientists who sounded the alarm. But when weren’t they doing that? They loved to get all red-in-the face about the political outrage du jour. No one listened.

Of course, you can’t touch one part of nature without touching all of it. Everything hangs together in a careful balance. One year an invasive insect is killing everyone’s trees. Next year some local bird figures out these things are edible, and now the bird population is out of control. It’s Newton’s third law of motion played out on the biological stage. Ecological changes cascade.

Mosquitos weren’t the first. We believe many other insect species rapidly died out at much the same time. Nor were they the last.

Next it was the filter-feeders. The things that depended on the insects. Eventually the birds, lizards, small mammals, leafy greens. And so on up the chain.

Then came the wave of superbugs. A lot of otherwise healthy people were labeled immunocompromised and isolated. Hospital beds filled up. The trouble was we knew these people weren’t immunocompromised. Many of them still had COVID-87 antibodies. Their immune systems worked – or had worked – not long ago.

Eventually someone isolated the bacteria that was killing these people: regular old E. coli. But this made no sense. E. coli is a normal passenger in our gut. A common traveler. Why wasn’t the immune system keeping it in check?

In vitro assays showed that macrophages were unable to engulf the isolated strain. It was like the immune system couldn’t even see the stuff. Nothing bound to it, nothing recognized it. The E. coli just ate up all the nutrients in the medium, divided, and starved the helpless immune cells. Someone got a Cell paper for that discovery. It was one of the last issues.

Not long after, someone sequenced the genome and 3D-modeled all of the strain’s proteins. Then we got our explanation.

This wasn’t a normal strain of E. coli. It was a mirror image.

Chemists have a word for it: enantiomer. Two molecules identical in atomic composition and bond structure, just backwards. It turns out: there are right-handed and left-handed molecules.

Well, this was a left-handed organism.

Biochemically, the 3D structure of a molecule is everything. It’s fundamental to biological function. You’ve probably heard of pasteurizing milk. Heat it up and it kills the bacteria. Simple, effective, cheap. Pasteurization works by denaturing proteins – it unwinds them, causing them to lose their three dimensional shape, and thus their function.

Students learn about enzymes with the lock-and-key metaphor. The enzyme is the lock, the substrate the key. The two have to fit together for any biological reaction to happen. Literally, physically fit. Like a glove on a hand.

But this organism was backwards: a right-handed glove for a left hand. It didn’t fit in the lock anymore, so nothing happened. Our immune systems evolved over hundreds of millions of years to bind to surface proteins shaped a certain way. They couldn’t reverse, couldn’t adapt, in minutes, hours.

Nor could all of the insects and fish and plants that were dying off. The left-handed bacteria were consuming right-handed resources, were impervious to right-handed defenses, but produced biologically inert left-handed byproducts. The normally beneficial work done by these bacteria was useless to almost all of Nature. Everything that depended upon those byproducts – i.e. just about everything – couldn’t survive.

The natural question at this point became: where does a left-handed organism come from? How does it evolve if everything else in Nature is right-handed? What could inject that much entropy into a system all at once?

The whole thing just screamed “human intervention”.

I admit, for a while this was a fringe theory. (There’s nothing quite like 4chan to kill the palatability of an idea.) But its relegation as a conspiracy theory shouldn’t have been surprising. Theories that blame other people for major disasters are bound to be fringe when times are good. It’s frankly just a bad look. It’s ugly, distasteful. Like a senator blaming “uninformed voters”. And times were good. Really good.

Nation-level poverty was a thing of the past. Globalization eventually spread first-world wealth everywhere that had an internet connection. And, as if to add a cherry on top, we had just beaten obesity.

It’s no small secret that the world’s obesity epidemic was caused by the introduction of refined sugar into our diets. The population-level data is really strong – on the level of smoking causing lung cancer. You give sugar to a population without it and like clockwork you start to see obesity, diabetes, etc., when before you had ~none. We saw it happen again and again.

Sugar was killing us. But it was simultaneously one of the best parts of life. Far more addictive than cocaine, but safer, cheaper, more enjoyable. There’s a reason why AA encourages people to eat candy and sweets when they feel the desire to drink. They trade one addiction for another. I remember this study where rats were allowed to choose between sugar or cocaine. They took the sugar.

Sugar without metabolic consequences was the holy grail: a trillion dollar market waiting to be born.

We had artificial sweeteners, of course. But they weren’t the same. They didn’t taste the same, didn’t cook the same, didn’t supply the same psychological need. And many weren’t even metabolically inert.

R. Anders Miln eventually won a Nobel for finally finding something that was – for finding the grail. He called it “Lucose”, “glucose” without the “g”.

Lucose tasted like sugar, cooked like sugar, smelled like sugar. It even caramelized like sugar. But it just passed right through the body. It was biologically inert: had zero calories. A man-made miracle. Lucose was cheap, it was safe, and it worked.

Within five years you couldn’t even find regular sugar at the grocery store. No one wanted it. Not even the whole food nuts. Even they knew refined sugar was a bigger problem than artificial ingredients.

Miln was hailed as a hero. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, even cancer rates dropped off a cliff. If he hadn’t won the Nobel for biology he might have won for world peace. Lucose brought a step-function improvement to everyone’s quality of life.

Of course, only Miln knew how to produce it efficiently, profitably. It was a closely guarded trade secret. The production plants were all automated. (Robots can’t be bribed for secrets.) And he profited enormously. You couldn’t even be that mad. The guy created a few trillion dollars of economic value out of thin air.

Eventually there was an accident at one of the plants. We’re still not sure what happened. Maybe it was corporate espionage or a sanctioned nation state (the US forbade Lucose exports to the bad places) or just a programming error. In any case, the thing blew up.

Within a couple months the extinctions began.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. In hindsight it should have been obvious. Lucose was really L-Glucose, or left-handed glucose. It still tasted every bit like sugar, but our gut enzymes couldn’t break it down. It was the wrong shape – backwards. It didn’t fit the lock. So the whole thing just passed right through us.

Miln created the left-handed mirror-organisms that wrecked our planet. It’s the simplest explanation by far. They were his “trade secret”, allowing him to synthesize L-Glucose en masse. He engineered them to consume right-handed nutrients and spit out left-. When they inevitably escaped, they quickly outcompeted their mirrored versions. They used the same resources, but nothing in Nature could touch them.

So here we are. Our crops are withered, our animals dead, our soil depleted. We bricked Nature, folks. It’s game over.

I guess no one should be surprised that humans eventually destroyed the Earth. We kind of saw that coming. But the thing that gets me is why.

The lazy take is that we ruined the planet because some dude wanted to win DietBet. Or make a ton of money. Not so.

If you wanted to do the most good for the most people in a completely developed world, you would have solved the sugar problem. Everyone had access to modern medicine and comforts. It was the latter that was killing us.

Miln could have been an effective altruist for all I know. His motives were pure: eradicate every major developed-world disease. Get them at their source.

We’ve long worried that we’d destroy the world for some stupid, short-sighted reason. Someone wouldn’t weigh benefits against risks. But you could have done that here and it still would have made sense to create Lucose.

Imagine you’re some capable, ambitious person who is balancing concrete, world-changing goods against hypothetical harms. A whole future without obesity/diabetes/cancer against some amorphous ecological risk? I’d take that bet all day long.

That’s what the billionaires on Mars should be worried about, if you ask me.