science fiction

Science Fiction Question

My mother and I have been talking about small livestock – it’s her specialty – and space colonization. She brought something up, and the only title that leaped to my mind was Dave Freer’s Slow Train to Arcturus. Only (it’s been a while since I read that) I think the segments of that generation ship that went wild weren’t intended to do so. But I figured if I didn’t know, maybe one of my readers would. Here’s Mom’s question, and she says she stopped reading SF in high school, which would be mid-1970’s. I’ve been re-introducing her to it! 

Okay!  Something has been poking at me about this topic, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen this one addressed by a sci-fi writer, although admittedly I haven’t read that much sci-fi since high school so maybe someone has talked about it.  But if you do have a multi-generational colony ship (multi-generational for the livestock at least, even if not for the humans), the animals — and plants — are going to adapt to the SHIP conditions, and they would lose genetics that they might need on the planet they were headed for.  It would be really important for the ship to maintain destination-planet conditions at least in the growing area(s) of the ship (and that’s another thing, there should be multiple growing areas, isolated from one another).

As I was looking at this, I was thinking about how well it ties into what I’m learning in genetics right now. The difference between phenotype – the expression of a gene, which is why some cats have black fur, and others are orange-marmie cats – and gentoype is indeed controlled by environmental conditions in some animals and many insects, so this is a very valid concern. And for those of you with entomophobia, I’m sorry, but bugs and microbes are vital to a healthy gardening and farming environment! 


9 thoughts on “Science Fiction Question

  1. You wouldnt lose those genetic traits, they would just become recessive, right? So, once you begin breeding on the planet, you would select for appropriate traits for the environment. Hopefully you planned appropriate guilds during the planning phase. Besides, if shipboard conditions are too disparate from planetary, those plants wont make the leap anyway. You cant take a zone 9 plant now and plant it in zone 5 unless it is an unusual plant. I think it’s a non-issue, but interesting line of thought. Ive always been attracted to stories, like Anne Mccaffrey’s “Dragonsdawn”, that do a good job detailing the early colonial period on a new planet and these are good questions.

  2. Janet Kagan wrote a series of short stories set on a planet called Mirabile that were collected into a book of that name in 1991. It was about 3 multi-generational ships that set out from Earth to a distant planet. The Earth scientists had found a way to hide additional genetic material within the DNA of the animals sent as well as a bank of, I guess you could call it primer material, so that an animal or plant could “chain up” into a different species in certain environmental conditions. Part of the fun of the stories is that the scientists forgot to take into account that a) there were already indigenous species competing for those resources and b) they couldn’t really predict the conditions on a non-Earth planet, e.g. someone’s daffodils seeded cockroaches one spring.
    I only have the one book, so I don’t know if she wrote any more, but I loved the stories and the main character, Annie Jason Masmajean, or Mama Jason is a spitfire.

  3. No, you actually can lose genetic material from a population. It doesn’t even have to be an adaptation thing, if a certain gene is only existing in a small portion of the population, and for whatever reason that portion of the population dies, then you won’t be able to bring that gene back. For instance, using chickens as my example, if the colonists took single-combed birds, pea-combed, rose-combed, and walnut combed, and all the birds died along the way except for the single-combed, you wouldn’t be able to get those other comb types back because single combs are somewhat recessive (it’s more complicated than that, but for the purposes of discussion). With color, some white chickens are hiding other colors, and their chicks won’t necessarily be white, but some birds are only white. So you could lose all your other colors. (Both combs and colors are important survival adaptations in some conditions.)

  4. I think genetic drift leading to the expression of recessives would be more of a problem in small to medium populations – a good example would be the genetic disorders that are prevalent in the Mennonite and Amish communities that can be traced back to founder effect.

  5. It’s been 25 years since I read it, but Frank Robinson’s The Dark Between The Stars was a generation ship story, and I seem to recall that the livestock on board had adapted to the ship conditions, though it would have been a detail in passing, since the story was about a power struggle to decide where the ship should go after a crisis, rather than about what happened after arriving.

    Or possibly my memory is conflating it with a different book. Because, again, I read it around ’90. 🙂

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