It's a bit complicated. Picture a post-apoc jungle ecosystem where the remnants of genetic experimentation have gone wild. A new type of cell was engineered that can support accelerated growth, extended lifespans, and in vivo mutation technology (for augmentation, in particular).

Once released into the wild in the wake of an "apocalypse", these "Proteus cells" form concentrated "hotspots" in the wild where biological matter mutates uncontrollably at an accelerated rate. I picture these areas as frothing, a boiling, foaming kind of visual process. Fountains of biological matter, growing and decaying and growing from its own remains, as if stuck in a loop. These hotspots can contaminate any living creature, causing them to age rapidly/decompose/mutate in unpredictable ways.

Does such a localized contamination sound plausible, or would such a contaminant simply replicate and contaminate everything biological? And does my visual image of this process make sense with the information given?

  • $\begingroup$ "Am I trying too hard?" doesn't sound like a clear question, but just as an opinion request. What is your problem? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ Apologies, the question was indeed unclear. I thought about it some more and tried to break it down into pertinent questions. Thanks for picking that up. $\endgroup$
    – yannicus
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'd accept this as plausible, mostly because the visceral images and potential as a story device. Yeah, I'd just run with this. I can think of no ways to improve this with additional justifications. Oh, and it seems like both natural barriers (mountains, rivers, oceans) and man-made ones (roadblocks, walls, maybe burning away vegetation) would be enough to localize the infection for a good amount of time. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2018 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue that it depends if this is plausible on what you mean by that. Basically anything goes with genetics in theory, but we have absolutely no clue how to do this. Such mutation "hotspots" are very common in fiction, for example in the recent movie Annihilation, but also on Star Trek and much much more. If you hear something often enough, it starts sounding plausible. That's what learning is. So plausible in what sense? Established (yes), realistic in the next 5 years (no), eventually (yes), something else perhaps? $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Jun 6, 2018 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ Not enough for an answer, but possibly worth considering: If these "Proteus agents" (not sure if they make more sense as cells, retro-viruses or something else) were designed for genetic augmentation, (i.e. "rewriting" an organism on the genetic level - not too realistic but a common sci-fi trope), then it is reasonable that they can recognize and ignore already treated cells. That can be the basis for explaining why a Proteus hotspot doesn't expand on its own to contaminate everything - it sits in a pool of already treated matter... $\endgroup$
    – G0BLiN
    Jun 6, 2018 at 16:21

3 Answers 3


I posted the below for an answer to this question: Anatomically Correct Huddle From Edgar Rice Burroughs: Synthetic Men of Mars.

“Something has gone wrong in No. 4 vat room,” he said. “Perhaps you had better have a look in there.”

When I reached No. 4 the sight that met my eyes was one of the most horrible I have ever looked upon. Something had evidently gone wrong with the culture medium, and instead of individual hormads being formed, there was a single huge mass of animal tissue emerging from the vat and rolling out over the floor.

Various internal and external human parts and organs grew out of it without any relation to other parts, a leg here, a hand there, a head somewhere else; and the heads were mouthing and screaming, which only added to the horror of the scene.

“We tried to do something about it,” said the officer, “but when we tried to kill the mess, the hands clutched us and the heads bit us. Even our hormads were afraid to go near it, and if anything is too horrible for them you can’t expect human beings to stomach it.”

I quite agreed with him. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get near the vat to drain off the culture medium and stop the growth; and with the hormads afraid to approach it, it would be impossible to destroy it.

Wild cancer is cool. The problem is for growth it needs to obtain energy and a lump of cancer cells does not have the apparatus to do that. There is competition for tasty food calories. Edible stuff gets eaten up or runs away.

Photosynthetic energy already produces great gooey blobs of greenness that grow in an uncontrolled fashion then die, then emerge from their deadness - this is eutrophication.

You could wave up some hybrid energetics - maybe something feeding on nuclear emanations or the like, which is happy to grab some extra nutrients where it can find it. An infectious cancer is definitely a real thing - the poor Tasmanian Devils are currently plagued by exactly that.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks so much for your answer. Learning about the eutrophication process is a godsend, had never heard of it before. Its this notion of accelerated decay and growth that distinguishes my approach to the "mutation-causing radioactive sludge" trope so I'll play with the pond scum imagery. Also v cool quote :) $\endgroup$
    – yannicus
    Jun 7, 2018 at 10:16

I'm going to go to the novel Bloom by Wil McCarthy for my treatment of this question, my answer is that yes longterm containment is plausible, within certain design limits. In order that the Proteus Cells stay contained to specific hotspots over the longterm they must have a need that cannot be met outside those areas.

In Bloom this was heat energy, the nano-assembler swarms could only survive in a belt in the inner solar system where the sun gives them enough, but not too much, thermal energy; in a similar way if your Proteus Cells require high concentrations of relatively rare elements like Tin or Zinc in the soil in order to stay active then you'll get isolated areas of activity. These zones will spread and dissipate slowly as lifeforms drop material outside the zone of concentration, thus lower the concentration in the zone and widening the zone with a high enough concentration simultaneously. If the elemental concentrations in the soil are because of ore bearing rocks at depth then the zones would still spread quite slowly but the concentrations in the centre could be renewed by lifeforms, like trees, that bring nutrients up from the bedrock. I'd say the visual would be fairly accurate if the cellular "clock-time" of the Proteus was high enough.


Given that evolution its driven by two main factors, gene rate of mutation and the number of available niches in the food chain, so there are two plausible paths:

It's an apocalypse nature has died out too There's no competition as the ecosystem just has gone into a mass extinction event, no more monkeys, birds, lots of insects and variety of plants, this scenario its just plausible from the first centuries to the first million years mark depending on how radical are the mutations that you talk about, I'll go for the most extreme case, life gets mutated radically almost instantly in a random way, this means that evolution driven processes will happen extremely fast, there would be a whole new ecosystem with new species appearing and getting extinct constantly until certain equilibrium its reached.

Equilibrium has been reached or nature hasn't gone into mass extinction Physics are physics and there's no way around that fact, eventually nature finds the most optimal way to occupy its niches, for example, ants have virtually perfected their hive lifestyle, for new species to compete with them they would have to had a very specific and very intentional traits as competition would rule them out before they become better than ants, there's a reason also why convergent evolution its a thing, there are some things that there are just not a better way to do them, eyes are a good example of it, there its just no better way to get more information from the ambient, that's why they are so common, so in this scenario the mutation wouldn't be much of a deal, maybe within their respective hot spots it will kill most things but it would go that far, nature would adapt to it pretty quickly, actually there's a place that this exact scenario actually have happened, its Chernobyl and it hasn't changed all that much, there's actually a lot of wildlife there.

So given this facts I would say that the most likely scenario for what you want to happen it would be the first one, but as I said, it would eventually create its own equilibrium where most mutations really don't offer any advantages so the mutated creatures usually just die out, to kill nature its actually a lot harder, it would have to be something like Jame's Corey protomolecule, some weird nanotechnology that uses AI to adapt and repropose matter to its own ends


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