The First Encounter
Why did I accept this job? I’ve asked myself this same question over the past few days as if I don’t already know the answer. Of course I only took this job for the money. I wouldn’t voluntarily be here risking my life. Here is Yellowstone which I have hiked and explored as I do not live far away in Idaho. I am a well known expeditionist in my field which appears to be a regret at this moment. Seven months ago, I would have said this is an easy job. However, something began to change seven months ago near the lake and Norris geyser basin. At first it appeared to be a fog. As a week passed, it quickly began drawing attention as the smog was persistent. Months passed and the smog has continued inch outward covering the whole park. It has reached Cooke city in Montana, Hebgen Lake in Idaho, and Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming. No one has been able to explain this phenomenon. Scientists say that it doesn’t make sense for the smog to be this persistent and growing. The smog has cooled down the area of Yellowstone which is why no major storms have occurred to be able to knock down the smog. A few light rain storms have pushed the smog back, but in a couple of days it is back to where it was.
The real urgency behind this is when the first known people went in on their own free will. They all made it out and eventually died a week later. The only thing in the news was that they had died naturally of old age. This proceeded to cause an uproar of conspiracy theories as the hikers were 21, 23, 24, and 26 years old. They were college friends and very much healthy and young when they went in. That was three months ago and no one has been recorded as going back inside the smog since.
I apologize for the long intro if you're reading this, but I need you to understand how I got to this point. As of today, I am in a hotel in Cooke City, Montana. Tomorrow I will drive into the smog until I reach the canyon. From there, I will hike to the Lake and the geyser basin in hope of taking water samples and samples of biofilms that are known to cover rocks in the lake. This should be a one day trip on foot which would get me back to the car and back to Cooke city in about 2 days. This will leave me with enough gas to get back to the city. That is if things go as planned. I am doing this because a scientist came to me three weeks ago. He said he could figure out a solution if he could find the source. I spent three weeks learning how to take samples from biofilms and the lake. This last week has been relaxing. The scientist says he is working independently besides a few of his assistants, but I do not know if I fully trust that. I do not trust this because he asked me to contact another scientist in which I will also send the samples. All I was given was a name and address. This raised my curiosity as to why I wouldn’t send him the samples directly. He said he was one of the scientists able to observe the bodies of the hikers that passed away. He wouldn’t tell me much until today when I threatened to not go without knowing what he found. He told me that when observing their telomeres, whatever those are, they were shortened which normally means a person is old. I guess people have these and the older you are, the shorter they get. Unfortunately, I was left with more questions than I wanted. I took some ecology classes at the University I attended, but I did not take any courses for genetics. I’m really wishing I didn’t take this job…
I am packed and will be heading into the smog soon. Looking back on my life, I have done many things. I was able to help find an ancient pyramid in egypt. I was able to explore a Tepui in Venezuela. Yellowstone National Park was not what I intended to be my last exploration… I wish I would have married and had some kids. Maybe they would have stopped me from accepting the job. Or maybe I would have taken it for them so that money wouldn’t be an issue. I do not regret not settling down yet as I am only 31. I thought I would have plenty of time for that… I still hope I will.
I’ve made it to the canyon now. The sun is setting and I will sleep in my car. The drive took longer than normal for how hard it is to see. Visibility is about 3 feet in all directions around me. This reminds me of when I was younger and had terrible claustrophobia. I couldn’t even put my comforter over my head without feeling like I was losing oxygen. Now I am confined to this car for the night and something could be standing a foot away without me knowing. I am writing now to hopefully begin to doze off. I have yet to see any signs of animals. If there was a wildfire, animals will have been reported of leaving the area. In this case, no reports of seeing animals fleeing from the park have been reported. Maybe they died of old age. I am nervous about tomorrow. The scientists gave me a suit to keep me separated from the smog. It looks like one you would see worn by the CDC. I am worried about the one thing the doctor warned
I have made it to the lake and the geyser basin. One thing I did not notice in the car was that the trees have no leaves. It wasn’t until I had gotten out that I noticed. This is very strange because it is May. The ground is just dirt. I have found no grass or flowers. On my journey here I have found remains of what I assume to be a dear from the skull. I can not tell what caused it’s death. It also hit me that I had not heard, or felt an insect since I have left Cooke city. The silence of the park was deafening. As I approached the lake, I could hear splashing. This reassured me that fish are alive and well. I began looking for shallow rocks to grab from the edge of the lake. This is when I discovered that the splashing was coming from air under the water from the rocks. I grabbed a rock which was covered in a slime. After practicing with biofilms, I knew this rock had that slime layer. I scraped some off and placed it into the tube. The tube began to fill up with a gas. I then proceeded to head to the geyser where I collected more samples. It was now time for me to begin my trip back to the car where I will spend one more night before heading back.
As I was making my way back, something fell and hit me in the head knocking me unconscious. I woke to find a dead bird laying two feet away from me with my suit ripped on top of my head. I am making this quick entry to let you know I am racing back to the car and driving straight to the city. I do not know how long I was out for. The back of my head is bleeding. One of the test tubes broke that I feel on. The has penetrated my side and more than likely I have been contacted by what killed those hikers. I do not know if this will kill me faster since it is in my bloodstream. If you find this journal, I have a room at the Alpine motel under the name Isaiah Cross. The scientist's name is written on a pad on the nightstand. Please give him this and the samples that are with it!
I had long since retired from the exciting field of microbiology and spent most of my time at my cabin. I built a small lab next to my cabin so I could continue experimenting and researching at my leisure. Friends, acquaintances and the generally curious would from time to time send me an unknown sample, or at least they thought it was. An expeditionist, Isaiah Cross, contacted me not too long ago and wanted me to run some tests on an unknown bacterium growing in Yellowstone. I assumed the package I received today was that specimen. Oddly enough the package was labeled in a strange manner and was sent from Mr.C. The origin simply said it was from Yellowstone, USA. The package contained a single vial which appeared to be a sample of a biofilm.
Package arrived with specimens from Yellowstone Park. Isaiah has likely sent another “cool looking” but irrelevant sample. Plated and incubated, will examine in two days. In all likelihood this is a sample of Thermoterrabacterium ferrireducens although it was found in a stream on rocks. Normally it would be found in thermal vents where the environment is entirely different. If this is a new strain of the bacteria it would certainly be an exciting discovery. To the best of my knowledge an anaerobic organism had never switched to an aerobic organism. However, I believe this to be a case of an improperly trained person collecting samples that appear to be of importance.
That night I had decided to set out on a hiking trip the next day. If I left around sunrise I would likely return home shortly after sunset. I often spent entire days hiking the area around my cabin. I had come to know the area intimately and felt connected to the beauty mother nature provided. Conifers covered the landscape and provided a home to a wide-ranging ecosystem. A small lake was a short walk from my cabin and I would often go there to watch the sun set. The trees reflecting off the water as the sun dipped below the horizon was how many of my days joyfully ended.
I set out for my hike early in the morning. I felt somewhat unwell but mostly attributed it to my old age. I continued on though, sure that I would improve as the day went on. It was sometime after midday that I began to feel overly drained as if I had been lost in the woods wandering for days without food or water. My condition was only getting worse so I stopped and rested. I packed a few sandwiches and fruit and had a nice lunch sitting atop a hill. From there I contemplated returning home rather than continuing. I figured I would give it a go and try but after a few steps the decision had been made for me. I would not be continuing forward and needed to return home immediately.
I began walking back toward the cabin but my vision became clouded. I was feeling light headed as well and my concern had reached an all-time high. I began stumbling trying to hold on to the trees around me for balance. Eventually I could stand no more and fell to the ground. The last thing I remembered was a cloud of dust around my face as I faded away. When I finally came around it was already night, just not that night. I looked at my watch and it said Thursday and I had left on Tuesday. For a moment I thought I was still in a fog and had merely misread the watch so I looked at it again, Thursday. I pulled out my journal and as I began writing in it, I realized what was happening to me.
Specimen #842 Yellowstone National Park
I left my cabin for a typical hike a few days ago and I am struggling to make it back. I have grown weaker the longer I have been out here and I believe I have been exposed to an unknown pathogen. I believed it to be Thermoterrabacterium ferrireducens, while that may be correct it is not entirely accurate. What was once an anaerobic organism that lived in thermal vents at the park has mutated in a way that is unimaginable. I believe this is causing my sudden illness that is affecting me in a strange way. I feel as if my life is being separated from my body.
I spent the rest of that day crawling back to my cabin. Inch by inch my hands dug into the dirt and I pulled myself forward. For some odd reason I thought being home would make me feel better. My mind raced about contemplating the possibilities of what was happening to me.
I had finally made my way to my cabin and needed only to finish making it up the hill before I was home. As I continued to get closer to the cabin, I noticed a dense fog ahead. I gathered my strength and made one final thrust up the hill but I could not see my cabin. Pressing forward I stopped to rest at a giant maple tree I often look at through my kitchen window while drinking coffee every morning. Sitting with my back against the tree I looked straight up and could not see what was more than a few feet above me because of the fog.
I felt worse and needed to reach the cabin. I pushed through the fog in the direction I believed the cabin was. The further I went the more disoriented I felt and the greater resistance I felt in the fog. As I was crawling, I passed a flower pot and knew I was almost there. I thought about just getting in the cabin and making it to my bed but I had to know if anything had happened to the sample in the lab. Once again, I gathered myself and made it to the lab. I grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open. I could not see my hand in front of my face but continued towards the direction of the incubator to find the sample. The floor was covered in a biofilm making the task that much harder. I made it to the incubator and ran my hand up it. It had become covered in the biofilm. It had grown out of control somehow overtaking whatever it touched. I made it back outside the lab and started back toward the house. About 10 feet from the house, I could no longer continue. I took out my lab book and made one final entry.
In my final contribution to science, I will attempt to describe what may be the end of mankind. It is a bacterium, one that I had seen before it mutated. I had heard that toxic waste was once dumped somewhere in Yellowstone but never came across any evidence. The toxic waste may be what caused the mutation and caused a bacterium that was once anaerobic to become aerobic. Such a mutation is unheard of. The bacteria are also emitting a gas of some sort, it is thick and disorienting. The biofilm is hearty and not only covers everything it comes into contact with but infects any biological life form. The infection itself will not kill me; I know what will though. It is life itself being drained from me. One of two things is true at this moment. I have either been stuck in this fog for 30 years or I have somehow aged 30 years in a matter of days. I know it has only been a few days so this disease has evolved in a way that sucks life from whatever it touches. If the fog still exists when you find this you have been exposed.
News Paper Article
Octopus Disease Continues to Terrorize Neighborhoods, but Yellowstone Officials Remain Hopeful
Mariah Mathers, Reporter, Wyoming News Network
It has now been a year since the mysterious smog first appeared in Yellowstone National Park. Months into this endeavor, and we are still struggling to deal with the biofilm that continues to seep from the river. Yellowstone has become a wasteland. The area once prided itself on having the largest concentration of wildlife, including bears, elks, wolves, moose, otters, and more, in the lower forty-eight states. Vegetation once thrived at Yellowstone. There were wetlands and hydrothermal plant communities, not to mention the species that could only be found at Yellowstone, such as Ross's bentgrass and Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat. Now, no animals can be found, the ground is either covered in decaying material or completely bare, and all endemic species have gone extinct. Famed explorer Isaiah Cross, who survived numerous encounters in the past, passed away after one trip into the smog. However, his efforts were not in vain, as scientists used his samples to study the causative agent of this disease: the biofilm.
"Visibility is about three feet in all directions around me. This reminds me of when I was younger and had terrible claustrophobia... I have yet to see any signs of animals"
-Excerpt from the journal of Isaiah Cross on his expedition into Yellowstone
The biofilm, a slime layer of bacteria, continues to spread outward, threatening to turn the entire country into a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. It seeps into every crack or opening it can. People have taken to calling it the "Octopus," as the slimy sea creatures are notorious for slipping through even the smallest of openings. Doors and windows have not been opened for weeks in some households. Parents warn their kids to stay inside so they don't "let the Octopus in." The physical barriers are effective at keeping out the smog, which always arrives before the biofilm itself, but bacteria can easily slip underneath a door. From there, all it needs is an opening into the body. Nose, mouth, ear, a small scrape. One exposure and you end up dying of old age at 15 years old.
Scientists from all over have been attempting to study this mutated bacterium, but there is still a lot of information we don't know about it. The biofilm is so motile and virulent it has killed ninety percent of the people trying to study it. They say the bacteria mutated because of hazardous waste that somehow seeped into the water. They say it drains the life from you, you become delirious, you have no idea how much time has passed and you can't see or think clearly. But how exactly does this infection kill you? Scientists have generally agreed that telomeres have something to do with it: the bacteria cut them shorter and shorter until apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is signaled. Telomeres, or the end portions of chromosomes, get shorter as people age, and are usually only short in older adults.
However, telomeres aren't the only things involved in aging. It also involves cellular damage from ROS, or reactive oxygen species, which are produced during normal metabolism. In addition, our genetics predispose us to survive only a certain amount of time. So how exactly does this infection work? Is it creating more reactive oxygen species? Is it killing antioxidants, which exist to protect us from ROS? Is it somehow changing our genetics, convincing our bodies that it is time for us to die? Not to mention the smog, which is created when gas produced by the biofilm mixes with sulfur from hot springs at Yellowstone. Coughing, gagging, and wheezing can all be caused by breathing in the thick pollutant. This smog doesn't stay localized, either. Produced at Yellowstone, it spreads outward just like the biofilm, coming in like a warning sign. Since the biofilm is so hard to study, it might be a while before we fully understand it. What we can focus on now is how best to protect ourselves.
"It is life itself being drained from me... One of two things is true at this moment. I have either been stuck in this fog for thirty years or I have somehow aged thirty years in a matter of days."
-Excerpt from the journal of Elias Becker, the first scientist to study the biofilm
Staying inside is the best way to protect yourself from infection. The CDC recommends staying indoors as much as possible, and completely covering your body if you do go outside. To this I say, there is one glaring issue with this approach to the situation: poor communities will disproportionately be at a higher risk of exposure. What should people do if they have no home to hide in? Companies are creating masks to protect against the smog and full body suits to protect against the biofilm, but they are only available to those who have enough money to pay for them. While the rich remain in their multi-roomed mansions with bunkers full of food, others try to seal cracks in their windows with duct tape and move as fast as they can through the grocery store.
In addition, many people cannot afford to quit working. Businesses are closing as their employees become ill. Some have moved to working online from home, but not everyone has internet connection good enough to do this. The rate of car accidents has increased drastically in areas where the smog exists. Healthy adults are getting serious respiratory illnesses from breathing in the smog, and children are suddenly dying of old age within weeks. How much has to happen before the government steps in to protect its people? We need better short-term solutions, and we need them now.
"The Octopus fills me with fear no matter where I am. Work, home, grocery store, it doesn't matter. I have no way to protect myself. I can't afford the fancy masks or suits. What am I supposed to do?”
-Carrie Williamson, Pocatello, Idaho
Meanwhile, the government has been collaborating with Yellowstone officials to try to find a long-term solution to this catastrophe. They first tried to use antibiotics to stop the spread of the biofilm. This proved futile once it was discovered the bacteria are resistant to almost every antibiotic in existence. An experiment in Helena, Montana worked for a few weeks, in which the biofilm was kept at bay with a "cocktail" of antibiotics. Researchers combined five highly potent antibiotic compounds together and attacked the biofilm with the mixture, an approach commonly used to fight superbugs in healthcare settings. After two weeks, the biofilm became resistant to the cocktail as well and pushed forward.
Their approach has now changed to studying adaptive species, trying to see if there is an organism out there that has naturally evolved to protect itself against the biofilm. Researchers have been sending in any and all organisms they can think of, from mice to fruit flies to various species of fungi. The mice have all died within a day or two. The fruit flies cannot fly through the smog. Plants and animals alike succumb to the Octopus. Interestingly, they did have some luck with one fungal species. The name of the fungus has not yet been released, but an official statement from Yellowstone has reported an important discovery: this fungus released a compound that partially degraded the biofilm. It needs to be studied more before any conclusive comments can be made, but the team from Yellowstone is remaining hopeful, and telling others to do the same.
"If this compound can be isolated, studied, and eventually synthesized in a lab, it could provide us with a weapon against a seemingly undefeatable attacker."
-Bryan Underwood, Lead Researcher, Yellowstone Team
If not stopped, this biofilm could spread across the entire country, wreaking havoc and destruction wherever it goes. Scientists are working hard to learn more about this biofilm and the disease it causes, and we should be grateful for their efforts. However, as we remain hopeful for a permanent solution, we must also be critical of the government's short-term problem solving. Poor communities are dying at higher rates. The people of the United States need masks, suits, better living areas, anything to help protect them. A better solution must be implemented before the biofilm spreads farther. In the meantime, if you see a thick smog moving into your neighborhood, I suggest traveling a few towns over before the Octopus gets you, too.
Mouse 0001 woke up inside a steel container, with nothing else other than a few pieces of straw. This was different than the box he was used to. Usually, the boxes are colorful and plastic, and they always contain one or two more mice. There is almost always a place to go for food and water. Not this time. There is nothing other than the cool metal and harsh gray tones.
The last thing Mouse 0001 remembers is being given a special treat. It was the kind of food he only got when something different was happening. He knew to be suspicious, but he also wanted to eat the treat more than he was scared of whatever was about to happen. Sure enough, as soon as he came over to the hand, a needle pierced his back and he hit the floor as he fell asleep.
Regaining consciousness, Mouse 0001 wasn't super worried. He had been made to fall asleep before and survived. He started grooming himself and wandering around the box, reaching out with his whiskers to see if he felt anything interesting. There wasn't much space to explore, but there were a few small holes on one of the walls. Through the holes, Mouse 0001 could see a forest. He hadn't grown up in a forest. Mouse 0001 had been born and raised in a laboratory in Montana. Even so, looking at the trees and flowers blowing in the breeze, he felt a strong, instinctual connection to the land.
Mouse 0001 didn't realize this, but the forest he was looking at was not a normal forest. The trees and flowers he saw were slowly dying. Most of the animals were gone. There was a layer of slime covering almost everything, draining life from whatever it touched. A thick smog was being carried by the wind. This forest was dying, and Mouse 0001 was about to be sent straight into it.
A hand came over to the side of the box with the holes. It was covered in a blue glove, and the person it was attached to was wearing a full body suit. The hand lifted the side of the box so Mouse 0001 could crawl forward. As he did this, Mouse 0001 took some time to study his new environment. He felt the ground with his whiskers. He scraped the dirt with his paws. He sniffed the air as much as he could. The last action proved to be the most useful. As he sniffed, Mouse 0001 detected his favorite food, placed further into the forest next to an old tree.
Mouse 0001 moved toward the food, driven by a ravenous hunger caused from his recent lack of eating. He ate the first piece he found, then another, then another. Each one moved him further into the forest. But as he moved from tree to tree, it became harder and harder for Mouse 0001 to find what he was looking for. The smog made it almost impossible for him to see. He tried to rely on his sense of smell to guide him, but that meant breathing in the pollutant, which then lead to a coughing fit. His whiskers and paws were still somewhat useful, but they were getting covered in a strange, slippery layer of slime. It weighed on his fur like a heavy blanket.
Mouse 0001 wanted to get away from the smog and the slime, so he decided to ignore the food and look for shelter instead. He managed to make his way to a few trees and examine them for holes. It was difficult, but after a long time of searching, Mouse 0001 reached out with his whiskers and felt an opening at the base of an oak. He crawled through the small hole and was greeted with a larger area inside.
The opening to the alcove was small enough that not a lot of smog seeped through. However, the area was covered in the slime. It touched every surface of the tree, and it was slowly starting to cover Mouse 0001. He was getting more tired every second. His light brown fur, usually properly groomed, was a mess. Mouse 0001 felt weak. His muscles were sore and it was difficult for him to move. His senses were diminished. Why had he been taken to this place? This was a strange experience for Mouse 0001. He considered going back to the silver box and the human with the blue glove. He could still remember how to get there. But he was weak. Mouse 0001 lay down for a quick rest. He breathed shallow breaths as he settled into a small gathering of leaves. For the last time, Mouse 0001 closed his eyes.
The human with the blue gloves and the body suit came back the next day and found Mouse 0001. She picked him up and took him back to the lab, where she would try to figure out how he had died. He was the beginning of a long line of mice used for this purpose. Although most humans will never know of his existence, Mouse 0001 offered a great service to humanity. He bravely explored a dangerous area so that they might understand it better, and for that, he is a hero.
First Encounter: Myself
Scientist Narrative: Brandon Anonymous
Newspaper and First Mouse: Sarah Anonymous
Video: Marzouq Anonymous
Characters/Social Media: Jenaya Anonymous
“Map of Yellowstone National Park”. Lonely Planet. 2020.
Shammas, A., Masood. “Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging”. NCBI. June, 8, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3370421/#:~:text=Telomeres%20shorten%20with%20age%20and%20progressive%20telomere%20shortening%20leads%20to,heart%20and%20infectious%20diseases%2C%20respectively.
- “Biofilm Bacteria.” Marshall Protocol Knowledge Base, mpkb.org/home/pathogenesis/microbiota/biofilm.
- “Center for Biofilm Engineering.” Center for Biofilm Engineering - Center for Biofilm Engineering | Montana State University, www.biofilm.montana.edu/.
- DR;, Kashefi K;Holmes DE;Baross JA;Lovley. “Thermophily in the Geobacteraceae: Geothermobacter Ehrlichii Gen. Nov., Sp. Nov., a Novel Thermophilic Member of the Geobacteraceae from the ‘Bag City’ Hydrothermal Vent.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12732575/.
- AllTrips.com. “Sulphor Caldron in Yellowstone National Park.” AllTrips - Yellowstone National Park, 2020, www.yellowstoneparknet.com/geothermal_features/sulphur_caldron.php.
- Heathman, Christine. The Science Behind Aging. 27 Aug. 2013, www.dermascope.com/aging/the-science-behind-aging.
- Labelle, Christine. “Main Components of Smog.” Parliamentary Research Branch, 1998, publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/modules/prb98-4-smog/maincomponents-e.htm.
Pappas, Stephanie. “Antibiotic 'Cocktails' Could Fight Resistant Bugs - But It's Tricky.” LiveScience, Purch, 5 Sept. 2018, www.livescience.com/63503-antibiotic-combinations-superbugs.html.
Yellowstone National Park Service. Bear Encounters. 2020, www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/wildlife.htm.
Yellowstone National Park Service. Plants. 2020, www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/plants.htm.
Aguilar, Shaina. “White-Footed Mouse.” BioKIDS, 2020, www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Peromyscus_leucopus/.
- Choi, Charles Q. “Did You Hear Something? Mice Can Cough, Study Finds.” LiveScience, Purch, 29 Mar. 2013, www.livescience.com/28308-mice-can-cough.html.
Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish. “White-Footed Mouse - Peromyscus Leucopus.” White-Footed Mouse, 9 Dec. 2020, fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AMAFF03070.
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 2020, uwm.edu/animal-care/training/manual/mice/.