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We've seen it throughout media before, a crazy mutation that creates zombies, rabid people, giant spiders, etc. I'm spot checking how crazy I can get with this short story I'm writing about a bacteria / fungus from space and what it can do to various species.

The main concept I'm going at is this novel disease spreads quickly, it tends to kill humans (likely close primate relatives as well), and mutates almost every other species it encounters. From algae in a lake growing exponentially, birds changing to have growths on their wings that drop and spread the infection that way, to fireflies that glow a different color releasing an infectious powder, to fish and trees that garner some kind of bioluminescence. Overall, it causes a massive change in the ecosystem as it spreads.

I know I'm doing a lot of hand-waving here, but I've got a few questions about generalities.

How fast can something like this could spread? How fast could these mutations occur? How much creative liberty am I taking?

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm sounds deadly. But I’m not sure a bacteria or virus would spread through so many different carriers so quickly and unknowingly. The thing is if the virus or bacteria can not live in the host it will simply die off and while those small devils divide quickly they don’t do it so often to mutate and adapt that quickly to new kinds of hosts. Of course there is a chance for it to be engineered and who knows what people might come up with to kill each other, $\endgroup$ – World Peace Aug 23 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the forum Nick Quinllin, when you have the time please take the tour and read-up in our help center about how we work. The same thing that would infect a human is extremely unlikely to infect an octopus. That being said, you are writing fiction, you can postulate anything you wish, the issue would then be selling it to your audience - the writer's job. $\endgroup$ – 011358 smell Aug 23 at 20:53
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Spread speed

An airborne/waterborne virus that can infect literally everything biological can spread pretty fast. The only limiting factor is what's carrying it. Winds would spread it over vast terrains, it'd cross a forest like wildfire, and hop rides on boats, cars, and airplanes, even, depending on the incubation period. Within hours, it'd cover hundreds of miles, continents by days, and the whole world within the week.

Speed of mutations

Days, months, or years. It depends on how long it take the host to reproduce. A common fallacy in science fiction is the idea that mutating DNA will immediately result in a change to the host - it won't. The important DNA that's use for development and growth isn't touched after development and growth of the organism. Upkeep DNA, which is used for day-to-day cell functions is used daily, and swapping that out can have effects, but you're looking for massive changes like additional growths on wings, and giving fireflies the ability to produce powder.

Creative liberties

All of them. With bacteria, it's airborne or waterborne, generally not both and they very rarely have the ability to affect more than one type of organism because of how different they can be at the cellular level. That, and give them the ability to kill humans, but have unique and separate mutations of for every other life form on Earth is not possible. It just isn't, it's like trying to create a single computer virus in BASIC that can somehow hack every single piece of programming ever written, including the air-gapped nuclear missiles.

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    $\begingroup$ You definitely made me think more about how I want this to be represented in my story. So I have a follow up - a fungus like disease, that attacks and modifies the cellular structure, reprogramming them back into stem cells, which then are manipulated into a method of reproduction, the creation of appendages for the spreading of spores. This shows in various ways depending on the species exposed. Some species affected, the fungus grows into the brain and death comes swiftly, in plant species the fungus can grow into the cell walls, now you have infected plants and trees. Thoughts? How crazy? $\endgroup$ – Nick Quillin Aug 24 at 3:30
  • $\begingroup$ @NickQuillin That's certainly a lot more plausible, that's for sure. Stem cells manipulation isn't really understood yet, but it's not inconceivable for a biological agent to be able to. And once it does, it can directly manufacture growth factors to stimulate appendages. Unfortunately, you still have the problem that such a fungus would need to be custom tailored to each organism if it was to achieve such a level of mutation. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Aug 25 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ I totally agree. I think I’m going to do a bit of hand waving there that the fungus has a unique ability to adapt to its environment / its host $\endgroup$ – Nick Quillin Aug 25 at 1:33
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Nanites

Bacteria and viruses have their own interests to take care of. They need to reproduce. If you want to get into the weeds with biology OK. But I think you want is freakish mutants and plenty of them.

Rather than space virus, you will employ a DNA correcting nanite. It is the latest medical tech. These were invented to go into people and correct mutant stretches in cancers, substituting different stretches of DNA that will mellow these tumors out. The same nanites can be used to correct the genome of children born with genetic diseases, correcting every cell in the body. It works great!

Except for some nanites with buggy code. They go rogue, "correcting" stretches of DNA in random places and swapping in stretches of other DNA that they found in prior hosts. Some organisms have every single cell in the body corrected. Other have "corrections" only in some cells. Occasionally a cell is "corrected" so as to contain the genome of an entirely different species.

This will get you the awesome array of freaks and mutants that you want, with only a little handwaving up front.

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