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How could a pathogen feed on silicon in computers while infecting humans with a high degree of success?

The world here is a few years away from general AI and the commercialization of GM humans. Non-FTL space travel is now decently cheap. We're currently fighting an antibiotic-resistance crisis.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there a reason for silicon to be important to this story? Do humans in your universe have a weirdly high amount of silicon in their body? $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Mar 15, 2020 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ It can't. There is no naturally-occurring free silicon for it to feed on. Elemental silicon is also quite unreactive at normal temperatures, so getting any sort of chemical reaction that would provide energy to a microorganism would be extremely difficult. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 15, 2020 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ Too Many Questions! You're welcome to ask multiple questions about the same worldbuilding problem, but please limit each post to one focused query please! See the help center and tour for more information. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Mar 15, 2020 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ I pared this down to one question. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 15, 2020 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L: The silicon in computer chips is almost always enclosed in ceramic or plastic packaging: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_circuit_packaging $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 16, 2020 at 4:23

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Your opal creature uses silicon for its body, but has conventional carbon energetics.

When we eat, we use our food for two things. We metabolize some for energy and we use some for anabolic processes - building our bodies

There are creatures who split these functions. Iron oxidizing bacteria, for example, have bodies made of the same sorts of carbon molecules that we use. But for energy, they oxidize iron. They do not use the products of their energy metabolism for any anabolic process - the iron oxides are waste.

Your creatures use silicon to form their bodies. They are opalescent creatures, their bodies laid down from layers of soluble silica. Energetics however are much like ours - they oxidize oxidizable carbon and retrieve the energy.

These are creatures of the deep earth where they have lived for ages. Some were accidentally retrieved. Their silica bodies make them unattractive as food, and so they colonized the upper worlds. Free in the environment there is much competition from bacteria and other organisms for reduced carbon. In the oceans the radiolarians and other silica-using creatures compete for soluble silica but on land there is no competition.

But the opal creatures are immunologically invisible. Our immune systems are long habituated to particles of sand and so these creatures provoke little reaction. Esconced in the bodies of top world plants and animals, the opal creatures are safe and also provided with a consistent supply of food. The issue for them is still soluble silica, which is present inside and outside of us but at very low concentrations. The low concentration of silica limits the growth of these creatures which also limits how morbid and dangerous the infections are. Most top land creatures are chronic carriers of the opal creatures, and come to little harm from them.

Actually carriers of these tiny opals can look pretty cool, because the opal creatures are pretty.

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  • $\begingroup$ Downvoted because silica (SiO2) is not silicon. You would have to have some sort of "silicon cycle" comparable to the carbon cycle, where organisms use photosynthesis to split already oxidized SiO2 into Si and O2, This would require quite a bit of energy to little point. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 16, 2020 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - Do you consider yourself to be a carbon based life form? Is there any biological cycle in which carbon is broken down into pure C? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 16, 2020 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Other than the production of coal, no. (AFAIK, at least.) But that's my point: even if you did have a "silicon cycle" parallel to the carbon cycle, you would almost certainly never see elemental silicon being produced or consumed, and that's what the question is about, pathogens feeding on silicon. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 16, 2020 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - My point is that you are a carbon based life form and you feed on carbon. Carbon here is shorthand for carbohydrates and other oxidized forms of carbon which taste better than charcoal or graphite. I interpreted "feeding on silicon" the same way - taking in oxides of silicon for anabolic purposes. There are things that really do that! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 16, 2020 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ No, I don't feed on carbon. Being a carbon-based life form does not mean using elemental carbon. any more than the fact that some carbon-based life forms (e.g. diatoms) also use molecules containing silicon, The OP is asking about using pure (except for miniscule quantities of dopants) elemental silicon, as found in computers. Even a silicon-based life form probably wouldn't consume elemental silicon, just as carbon-based life doesn't use elemental carbon. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 17, 2020 at 18:00

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