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An unnamed advanced civilization is renowned throughout its home galaxy for its zealous belief in a certain flavor of absolute freedom. To them, it is a travesty for any individual to suffer harm from another, or be imposed to act in a certain way or another, basically a horror beyond thought at least among each other. And their civilization satisfies virtually all of their basic needs with little to no invasiveness.

Even though a species of absolute loners might sound like an amazing deal for any sentient species living in fear of aggressive hiveminds that just won't stop popping up and devouring all life to make more of their own, there is a catch that makes them no better: as non-cellular organisms, they do not recognize multicellular life as valid life. Since any live cell is an individual living being, they see their parent organisms as walking, flying, crawling, swimming atrocities.

Combined with some ridiculous idealism they, or rather a vast majority of the members of their collective species at some percentage with a few dozen 9s completely on their on volition, are on an endless crusade to 'liberate' any such life they encounter and set the entrapped, exploited and abused cells free to go on their merry ways ideally somehow fixed up in a condition so that they can survive on their own reasonably long enough to enjoy free life.

With this premise, I am trying to imagine a method that is not outright hand-wavy or extremely dramatic applied on their encounter with Earth like some orbital beam that 'liberates' all life in its path. Ideally it should not resort to a slightly more convoluted "tiny robots/viruses that just work like magic in a swarm" either. For example, nanobots/viruses that dump some bit of gene or swap around some gene expression, or protein, or cut cell-cell adhesion with magic lasers or pincers etc. without any explanation on how they even work in the first place would not really fit this theme. Neither would magic holy acid with a fancy name that washes away the sins of those cells and sets them free.

Of course realistically I will need to resort to magic at some point of explaining it, but I want to push it as far as possible into the hard sci-fi territory. What are some options I can consider?

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    $\begingroup$ Ever wonder how tadpole undergoes metamorphosis into a frog? How do you speed up the breaking down of strong chemical bonds in proteins? Nature solution to this is quantum tunneling however terms and conditions apply... $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 3:23

4 Answers 4

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Dissolve the extracellular matrix with enzymes

Your body is not just cells and fluids. Your body has a substantial amount of macromolecules which live outside the cells to hold the cells together and support them in various ways. This is the extracellular matrix. In animals, collagen is the dominant protein holding us together. Cellulose is the main component in plants. If you destroy the extracellular matrix, then the cells should mostly fall apart.

The process to achieve this not too great a stretch of plausibility, although it involves a significant expenditure of time and resources. I provide one possible sequence of events:

  1. For each taxonomic group of multicellular organisms, the aliens will need to study their biochemistry to identify what their extracellular matrix is made of and how to differentiate it from the individual cells.

  2. The aliens would need to invent and brew up a big vat of enzymes which specifically target the components of the extracellular matrix. When you want to selectively react with specific biomolecules, enzymes are the go-to substance. In some cases there may be complications where the cells are inextricably linked to their extracellular matrix, which may make this method difficult, but there may still be a way to break the organism into is component tissues.

    • These enzymes are target specific. e.g. Enzymes which work for animals won't work for plants. You can mix them together into a cocktail of enzymes, but the broader your target group (especially if you want it to be effective for multiple planets) the more likely you are to have an enzyme which works for one organism but kills the cells of another organism.
  3. The aliens would need to capture the organisms they want to dissolve, sedate them if necessary, then immerse them in the vat of enzymes. The organism's extracellular matrix will be destroyed from outside inwards and the creature should slowly dissolve into their component cells. I guess this process will take some hours, or even days, although that's a guess. You may need to have some kind of life-support to stop the cells on the inside from dying before they can be liberated. If you want the process to go faster, there are other possible methods of delivery which may have lower yields of successfully liberated cells but could act faster:

    • For large groups of organisms (e.g. forests, cities), you can dump this enzyme solution on them. This will dissolve their outsides like cartoon-style acid. However, it is unlikely to affect their insides (at least not before the cells die), and you also leave the newly liberated cells helpless on the ground where they are harder to scoop up.

    • For something which could be used as a one-on-one weapon, you can inject the target with this solution. It will be dispersed through the bloodstream of the target to rapidly effect every part of their body. Their innards will all start dissolving, and the target will promptly die. However, there's a catch. If the enzyme is too effective, then it will destroy the circulatory system before it can be properly distributed. If it acts too slowly, the creature might die and then dissolve too slowly to save the cells. But there might exist a sweet-spot where the enzyme is effective enough to render the target down to primordial soup without destroying the target too quickly. If so, this might be the most effective method for animals, but would be less effective against organisms with less active circulatory systems, such as plants.

    • When dumping an organism in the vat, you can always chop up the organism into smaller pieces to accelerate the liberation process. Granted, chopping up the organism will destroy some cells, but it might be less cells than those which would die if you took too long to liberate the cells. A meat grinder is probably too destructive, but big sharp blades should have minimal collateral damage.

  4. As covered in the other answers, the cells of multicellular organisms won't survive long without help. The aliens would need to provide special support for the cells to keep them alive. The simplest option would be to leave the liberated cells in vats or pools of nutrient-rich cell culture. Assuming ideal conditions, any cells capable of mitosis should be able to survive, and other cells (such as red blood cells) could live out the remainder of their natural lives. Some cells might complain about not being part of a larger organism, but some targeted drugs could probably fool them into thinking they are happy.

    • However, circumstances which are good for growth of tissues from a multicellular organism are also good for growth of single celled organisms such as bacteria. In cellular biology, keeping unwanted bacteria out of your cell cultures is of paramount importance otherwise all your cells will be killed by the bacteria. All multicellular organisms host microbiota. Since your aliens would want to keep the bacteria alive as much as they would the cells of the multicellular organisms, the only safe option will be to separate the different cell types after dissolving the organism and grow them in separate cell cultures.

What we have here as our weapon is a liquid solution of enzymes which is specially formulated to 'dissolve' specific organisms, by destroying their extracellular matrix while leaving the cells untouched. Different types of organisms will need different formulae. There are multiple possible means of delivery, with varying degrees of speed and control. The aliens will have to carefully protect and nurture the resultant puddle of cells, otherwise they'd be doing no better than killing the target conventionally and letting nature take its course.

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Cells in multicellular organisms are too interconnected to survive for long split apart. Division of labor has ensured that the organism as a whole has many critical functions (like waste product removal and neutralizing toxins in the environment) relegated to specific regions. They will also naturally self-organize into tissue because they are programmed to do so automatically.

Anything you can do to split the cells apart is going to be so invasive that their imminent death is assured. Critical life support functions are maintained by organs that only work in the aggregate macrostructures.

And if you do something to keep them alive, you are forcing them to become dependent on what you give them. This is just as much a violation of their philosophy as multicellular life, but that's never stopped a hardened enough zealot before.

Also, single celled life is pretty cutthroat. Much of it tries to make a living by killing other life forms.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is not making them dependent to just dump some free lunch with primordial soup and some saltines on their planet once in a while. Besides if they want to be cutthroat, they have every right to be instead of being subjugated by some oppressive entity like a puppy or kitten. As for the process killing them, some losses are acceptable as long as it is counterbalanced by the amount being freed, not to mention the number already being killed by the metabolism of the parent organism $\endgroup$
    – Layman
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 2:59
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So you want a method to simply separate all multicellular life in the planet, from fungi and multicellular algae to plants and animals, without killing said cells? Yeah it might be easier to just go with a super alien sci-fi beam. Multicellular life has quite the cost to the individual cells, the cost being that they're overly specialized and will likely all die in a very short spam if you just split them apart wherever they previous owners were. Not even talking about the separation yet, the way cells are organized in us and other living things make it so that they need all of their partners. The cells that compose nervous tissue are so specialized they essentially don't engage in mitosis, and require other cells to protect, nurture and assist them,so separating them all would mean their doom. Additionally, since our cells are litteraly programmed to live in a group, as soon as your aliens saw an embryo (be it a human or another animal) developing from a single cell, they'd likely either have an internal crisis over how the cells aren't too different from them, joining together towards a goal, or they'd be disgusted and press the delete button on earth. Additionally, interconnected cells like we see in fungi which have actual holes which link their insides to the neighbor cells, would likely die very soon. To make these cells survive for long enough periods, you'd need to place them in an environment with no potential predatorial cells, all food and water they need in specific amounts and a series of other factors. In other words: the largest cell life support in the history of "forever" (and yet a good part of them would still eventually all die off, because cellular senescence is a thing for many creatures on earth) .

Now, regarding the separation. Yeah that won't do. There simply is no known way, be it via a beam or nanomachines or even a virus, to completely separate all cells in all multicellular lifeforms without a risk of harming and potentially killing the cells themselves in the process. You're stuck with "science so advanced it's indistinguishable from magic" solution. Your super microscopic lasers/scissors seem to actually be the most believable way to fulfill your objective, as they seem like the most precise ones, and therefore, the ones which could be most successful (sorry, it's gotta be nanomachines as far as I see).

Unrelated note: your aliens seem like they see their goals, society and groupwork as valid, but see a group of thousands of cells working towards a common goal in what's essentially a caste-based microscopic society, also known as multicellular life, as invalid. I almost risk saying they seem jealous of how organized and efficient these little cells can be.

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    $\begingroup$ On the contrary, because they are free to do as they wish rather than being force specialized to the point they can't even survive, they see it being imposed to others as an atrocity. As for the already specialized cells, hit them with a somewhat hand wavy gene expression altering virus in the aftermath. I want the hard science more for the part they are physically split apart, fine to adjust a bit per species if there is no one size fits all $\endgroup$
    – Layman
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Victor S well if we go with the tiny scissors, you just need them to be able to find where one cell ends and the other begins. If they can do that, I'm relatively sure you can recycle them (given they have the necessary strength). You'll also want to rewrite the genetic code, as all of our cells have the information to make a pluricelular being, meaning lots of useless info if you're forcing them to remain separated. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 3:59
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All the answers given above are correct.

In addition, there is an internal consistency point:

If they are smart enough to work out the peaceful means, e.g. a matrix dissolving enzyme, they would also be smart enough to figure out how multicellular organisms work, that the liberated cells would not be much better off on their own, and so on.

It is a nice idea to imagine that multicellularity is a completely novel concept to them, but presumably they themselves live, as individual intelligences, in a society with division of labour. They would need to be blind to the obvious analogy while researching out their highly sophisticated biochemistry.

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