by M.D Schultz
Case study surrounding the trees that profit from death.
|Case Study 365052 Corpse Tree
The human genome project was a study conducted a number of years ago in order to completely sequence our DNA. Before its completion, scientists played a guessing game as to how many functional genes were required to create mankind. At the time, we had discovered mycoplasma with fewer than twelve and plants with higher than 40,000 genes. It was once believed that our complexity and capability of higher thought would correlate with a very large genome. Some estimates had our total number of genes in the hundreds of thousands. Imagine the surprise they must have felt when it was discovered that mankind possessed no more than 25000 functional genes. In terms of genomic complexity, plants were our superior in almost every way. But how could this be so? Plants were stationary and unable to forage. It was for this very reason that a more diverse set of genes is required.
Have you ever heard the term essential amino acid? It refers to metabolites that our bodies cannot make and thus we must acquire them through our diets. These nutrients are necessary for life and without which we couldn’t function. However, because of our complexity, we can forage, migrate, and hunt with tools. We go where the food is available. Furthermore, we like most organisms can run from what hunts us. This is something a plant, once grown, cannot do. As such, these organisms possess a unique set of genes for making products that would otherwise be essential for us. A plant must rely on sunlight and what is in the soil and air. Growth is one of the few ways they can move and that requires a taxing amount of energy and resources. Because of these binding restrictions, plants possess more genes to deal with a more complex state of being. Genes to make pesticides to kill insects, genes to produce fruit with a burning taste to discourage consumption, genes to produce vital energy from sunlight and water, and much more.
Knowing this, you must wonder why it is that some plants produce fruit that is sweet. As a result of being immobile, plants must utilize unique mechanisms for reproduction. Imagine if every seed were planted at the base of a tree. Before long overcrowding would sap all of the nutrients from the soil and blot the sun from the sky. In the end, very few would survive and plants would possess a very low fitness. However, plants have adapted to this situation as well. Most everyone knows of the dandelion and its seeds that flow with the wind, and stinging insects that are attracted to the sweet nectar of flowers only to act as pollen ferries to fertilize the next. Believe it or not, most organisms are involved in plant reproduction. In some ways, plants have come to rely on other organisms for their continued existence. Take the apple tree for example. Once the flowers are fertilized by insects, apples develop in such numbers that branches often bow from the weight. This makes the fruit accessible to all walks of life. Bears, raccoons, squirrels, and yes even humans devour the fruit for their own survival. However, we often toss the cores of the fruit well away from the base of the original tree. The seeds within the core then germinate and produce a new tree that you yourself planted. Furthermore, the seeds possess an acid-resistant coating allowing them to survive a trip through the digestive tract of most animals. This means that if the apple is devoured whole, the seeds will simply be planted during the natural process of defecation. Feces, after all, possess many nutrients that help plants grow. This is why farmers often use cow manure as fertilizer for the next crop.
However, what has this got anything to do with the parallel realms? It’s important to have a basic understanding of how plants survive and reproduce in order to understand the corpse tree. Though being from another realm, the mechanism to reproduce and survive is very much intact.
When the prism gates became regular occurrences they brought with them unusual weather patterns. Even a closed gate leaves a scar and through that scar, another world's climate can influence our own. As a result, deserts became rainforests, rainforest became oceans, and oceans became mountains and deserts. Our world was alien to us and none of the original continents were ever the same again. It was in these changing times that the corpse tree was discovered. The Fifth Chapter was dispatched in response to a number of unusual clinical cases in a region called Kanton. A place once known as the Sahara Desert that was now a temperate coniferous forest. The patients in question suffered from severe chest pain and difficulty breathing. As always, the yellow suits determined the significance and it was eventually opened as a full-blown case study. You see, the patients had tree’s growing in their lungs.
Chest X-rays revealed what was at first believed to be tumors in the airways of these twelve individuals. Surgery, however, showed that these tumors had roots and needles. They had extracted what appeared to be a young pine tree. The plant itself was almost entirely brown and the needles had embedded within tissue so violently that entire portions of the lung had to be removed for any chance of the patients' survival. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, eight of the twelve hosts were killed. You see, it wasn’t just the needles but the roots as well. They had entwined within the blood vessels and were releasing potent blood clotting agents to shut down circulation. I had once heard stories about plant seeds germinating in lungs as a result of an accident and, furthermore, such cases were said to be extremely rare. However, this was no accident. These plants were actively trying to kill the host.
Before further investigation, I had hypothesized that these parasitic plants released airborne seeds responsible for each clinical case. Fortunately, we had long since prepared for viral disease and, as such, none of us were exposed to unfiltered air. However, the entire population of Kanton was in danger. As a result of these events, more than twelve hundred people were quarantined and over half were found to have seedlings present in the right and/or left lobe of the lung. Many of these cases were resolved quickly and without complication due to the early stages of growth. The more severe incidents had a near 70% mortality rate. Once the plant had established in the vasculature, saving the host was much more difficult.
While we dealt with the clinical situation, another group was dispatched to locate the trees responsible. It wasn’t long before the culprit was identified. An unusual white spotted fur tree was discovered growing in the center of the district of Kanton. The citizens had cared for the tree as a symbol of the city given its proximity to places of worship. We were interested to learn that this particular tree had grown from the burial site of a stray hound. Some of the neighbors had taken to caring for it until it fell ill and died. They built a small grave to commemorate its life and passing and a sapling was found growing in its place less than a week later. It was very likely that the dog was the first victim of the corpse tree. Though it is yet unknown where the seeds were first inhaled, it is likely that the tree took root within the dog and later sprouted in the middle of the city. The tree was confirmed to possess the carbon-silicon bonds that all known creatures from the parallel realms have. We needed no more proof than this and so the symbol of the city was torched to the ground. Later, teams would be dispatched to locate any other corpse trees present in the wooded areas of Kanton. As of writing this case study, over 100 hundred corpse trees have been sighted. Fortunately, only one has been found amidst heavily populated cities.
The saplings recovered from the patients of Kanton were grown in a secured research facility close to the governing branch of the bunker. From these saplings, we were able to understand the full life cycle of the corpse tree. At maturity, these unusual plants reach a maximum height of over 300 feet and appear to be a species of evergreen with white speckled needles. However, unlike common fir’s, these trees can reach maturity in less than 3 months with proper nutrients. Such rates of growth are astonishing and may have great implications for the wood industries if not for the dangers these trees pose. Each tree can produce hundreds of male and female pine cones. A pollen filled male cone is easily identifiable from its red hue while the female cones are pure white. Both male and female cones disintegrate at maturity releasing their contents into the air. Both seeds and pollen are barely visible and look as little more than dust in the sunlight. Under the microscope, we discovered that female seedlings possess wings for gliding in the air and change to a reddish brown color when fertilized. The fertilized seeds are the most dangerous stage of this tree's development. Several mammals were exposed to the mature seedlings and the progress of its final development was documented.
Once inhaled, the seeds become embedded within the lung tissue. Under any other condition, this wouldn’t normally be a problem for mammalian lungs which are lined with respiratory cilia. These cilia beat rapidly and help remove debris and other irritants from the lung. However, the corpse tree seeds produce a low concentration of collagenase which helps break down any local cilia as well as assisting the structure in penetrating the tissue. Furthermore, the plants also recruit a number of immunosuppressive components through secreted protein effectively preventing a hostile immune response from damaging the growing sapling. Normally there are enough nutrients within the seeds to help a plant grow from the earth. This is why saplings of any plant are commonly white or brown without a hint of green. In the absence of light, plants cannot photosynthesize and thus don’t waste energy in the production of chlorophyll. The corpse tree functions in a similar manner only these parasitic plants use the nutrients in the lungs before active photosynthesis. Since the lungs are naturally hot and humid, they provide the perfect environment for these plants at early stages of growth. Furthermore, the corpse tree is also using its host as a taxi allowing the new tree to germinate far away from the original source.
After a week, the sapling has produced roots that have invaded much of the hosts' lungs and measurable levels of a potent blood clotting protein begin to surface in the animal's serum. Once the needles appear, the fate of the host is all but determined. Much of the tree's growth actually begins after the animal has expired. The process of decay plays a very important role in the life cycle of this plant. After death, the decomposing tissue releases gases and nutrients vital for maintaining the health of the sapling. Other organisms, most notably insects, clear away the outer tissues and expose the thoracic cavity. Once the light touches the corpse tree, it begins to transition from a reddish brown color to its unique powdered green look. At this point, the tree is completely harmless and near indistinguishable from any other plant until maturity. Interestingly, if decomposition is halted for any reason, the sapling was found to be unable to break free from the corpse which effectively becomes a prison. Perhaps it is the trees Achilles heel but there is no effective way of controlling decomposition outside of a controlled setting.
Though the threat of the corpse tree has been contained, fears of it resurfacing have kept the Fifth Chapter busy in exploring new ways of combating airborne disease. Never before have we come to fear plants as much as we do now for the corpse tree represents a potent biological weapon in the wrong hands. It was for these reasons that we were commissioned to explore the trees life cycle in its entirety. To this end we have succeeded and, as such, all matter pertaining to the corpse tree is now closed.
As an added note, two fully mature trees have been securely maintained in efforts to develop a countermeasure against this unique threat. Any additional material for study can be found in vaults sharing this studies ID.