E.E. Giorgi is one smart cookie, a scientist and a writer (after my own heart). At her blog she explores fascinating science + fiction topics, and she writes speculative science fiction thrillers with real science in the concept. She has a new book out, Immunity, part of an intriguing multi-author project in post-apocalyptic fiction called Apocalypse Weird. Here, E.E. Giorgi details the thinking that went into the concept for this book–and it’s hecka fun.
E.E. Giorgi, author of Chimeras and Immunity
Last fall, I was approached by Michael Bunker, one of the founders of Wonderment Media, and asked to produce a book for Apocalypse Weird, a brand-world created by Wonderment Media that each author uses like a sandbox for their own stories. Michael told me I could pick one region of the world and create my own apocalypse within that region. He gave me some examples of how other authors were devising their own end of the world and listed things like zombies, tornadoes, nuclear explosions, and stuff like said. Until he said two words that got me thinking for a long time: autoimmune flu.
My first reaction was: “There cannot be such a thing as an autoimmune virus.”
Or can there?
The word ‘autoimmune’ is used to describe the body attacking its own self. Autoimmune disorders arise when the immune system reacts against cells and tissues in the body and tries to destroy them as if they were pathogens. But the influenza virus is something we acquire from the environment, not part of our own body.
However, we do have viruses deep inside our body, viruses that have been there back when we were monkeys and even before that; viruses that became part of our genome tens of thousands of years ago. How did that happen?
In order to replicate, this class of viruses—called retroviruses—inject their genetic material inside the cell’s own DNA. When the cell replicates, the virus replicates its own genes too, making thousands of copies of its genome. Retroviruses have been around much longer than us. For millions of years they’ve infected cells from all species. And every now and then, just by chance, a retrovirus infected a spermatozoa or an oocyte and inserted its genome inside the cell’s genome.
Now imagine that infected spermatozoa or oocyte, with the extra bit of viral DNA, becoming a fertilized egg. The egg now carries the viral genome and, as it develops into a fetus, and the fetus grows into a new individual, the new individual will have the bit of viral DNA inserted in his/her own DNA (for a more detailed discussion, see my post).
About 10% of our genome is made of viral genes that we acquired through an infected spermatozoa or oocyte. These genes became a part of our own DNA. They are called endogeneous retroviruses, where endogenous means that instead of being a virus we “catch” like we catch the cold or the flu, these “viruses” are inside our cells from conception. The question is: what do they do? Do they behave like all other genes or do they behave like viruses?
They do both. Some of these viral genes, for example, are expressed in the mammalian uterus and they encode proteins that are useful in making the placenta. It makes sense if you think that viruses are good at hiding from our immune system, and a fetus, as it grows, needs to be ‘hidden’ from the mother’s immune system or else it could be attacked by her antibodies.
The bit that got me thinking more and more about Michael’s autoimmune flu, though, is this: many of these viral genes embedded in our DNA are found to be abnormally expressed in mental disorders. I looked up one disease in particular, schizophrenia, and found that not only are some viral genes activated in people who had been recently diagnosed with the disease, but a study also found significantly high levels of antibody directed at these retroviral elements.
Basically, the immune system is attacking the viral genes in the brain as though they were real viruses.
A light bulb went off in my head. You know, that nagging ‘What if?’ question that tugs at the back of your mind and doesn’t let go until you sit down and start writing. And write I did. I invented a flu virus—well, not totally invented, as H7N7 does exist and is indeed one of the most zoonotic of the flu viruses, which means it has a high potential to jump from one species to another.
But what I did make up is that a mutated version of H7N7 could have enough similarities to the viral genes embedded in our genome to elicit antibodies that would then attack the brain. There are viruses that are actually very similar to some of our endogenous retroviruses, but thank goodness they are rare and it’s uncommon to become infected with them. But for my plot I needed a common virus, one that’s easily spreadable with a sneeze, and of course influenza fit the bill.
The rest became the plot of my new thriller, Immunity, released on February 23rd together with four other books set in the Apocalypse Weird world: Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole, The Dark Knight by Nick Cole, Reversal by Jennifer Ellis, The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau, and Immunity by E.E. Giorgi.
IMMUNITY BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Greed, mayhem, and a deadly virus meet on the high deserts of New Mexico.
Scorched by fire and the longest drought in recorded history, survivors flee the Land of Enchantment in order to escape a mutated flu virus that turns ordinary people into mass-murderers. Only a few resilient scientists have remained, gathered in one of the last national laboratories still working on a vaccine against the deadly virus.
When the disease starts spreading among the military corps guarding the premises, the laboratory turns into bloody carnage at the hands of the infected soldiers. Determined to succeed where her mother has failed, immunologist Anu Sharma pairs up with computer geek David Ashberg to find a cure and escape the massacre. Outbreak meets World War Z in the deserts of the Apocalypse Weird.
AUTHOR BIO: E.E. Giorgi grew up in Tuscany, in a house on a hill that she shared with two dogs, two cats, 5 chickens, and the occasional batches of stick insects, newts and toads her dad would bring home from the lab. Today, E.E. Giorgi is a scientist and an award winning author and photographer. She spends her days analyzing genetic data, her evenings chasing sunsets, and her nights pretending she’s somebody else. On her blog, E.E. discusses science for the inquiring mind, especially the kind that sparks fantastic premises and engaging stories. Her debut novel CHIMERAS, a medical mystery, is a 2014 Readers’ Favorite International Book Award winner.
Click here for Giorgi’s NEWSLETTER.