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Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life [Kindle Edition]

Carl Zimmer
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $16.00
Kindle Price: $11.24
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

A Best Book of the YearSeed Magazine Granta Magazine The Plain-DealerIn this fascinating and utterly engaging book, Carl Zimmer traces E. coli's pivotal role in the history of biology, from the discovery of DNA to the latest advances in biotechnology. He reveals the many surprising and alarming parallels between E. coli's life and our own. And he describes how E. coli changes in real time, revealing billions of years of history encoded within its genome. E. coli is also the most engineered species on Earth, and as scientists retool this microbe to produce life-saving drugs and clean fuel, they are discovering just how far the definition of life can be stretched.


From the Trade Paperback edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When most readers hear the words E. coli, they think tainted hamburger or toxic spinach. Noted science writer Zimmer says there are in fact many different strains of E. coli, some coexisting quite happily with us in our digestive tracts. These rod-shaped bacteria were among the first organisms to have their genome mapped, and today they are the toolbox of the genetic engineering industry and even of high school scientists. Zimmer (Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea) explains that by scrutinizing the bacteria's genome, scientists have discovered that genes can jump from one species to another and how virus DNA has become tightly intertwined with the genes of living creatures all the way up the tree of life to humans. Studying starving E. coli has taught us about how our own cells age. Advocates of intelligent design often produce the E. coli flagellum as Exhibit A, but the author shows how new research has shed light on the possible evolutionary arc of the flagellum. Zimmer devotes a chapter to the ethical debates surrounding genetic engineering. Written in elegant, even poetic prose, Zimmer's well-crafted exploration should be required reading for all well-educated readers. (May 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“A powerful account of the dynamic, complicated and social world we share with this ordinary yet remarkable bug. . . . Exciting, original, and wholly persuasive.” —New Scientist

“Superb. . . . A quietly revolutionary book.” —Boston Globe

“Creepy, mind-twisting, and delightful all at the same time” —Steven Johnson, author of The Invention of Air

“This award-winning science writer has turned out an illuminating biography of one of biology’s most influential–and underappreciated–players.” —Discover

“For readers who enjoy a seat at the revolution and a chance to ponder the ‘supple little bugs’ at the dawn of life, Microcosm is a bracing read. This timely book deserves shelf space near Lewis Thomas’ classic Lives of a Cell.” —Cleveland Plain-Dealer

“Engrossing. . . . Zimmer adroitly links the common heritage we share with E. coli and the emerging horizons of science.” —The New York Times Book Review

“All in all, Microcosm is a phantasmagoric read that explains how our understanding of the nature of E. coli has helped to unravel the mysteries of our own nature and evolution. The book is impressive for the information it imparts and even more impressive for the ideas it provokes.” —New England Journal of Medicine

“E. coli has provided answers that have reshaped our very definitions of life. Zimmer succeeds in engendering a healthy respect for the bug that lives inside us all.” —Seed Magazine

“Engagingly written. . . . [Zimmer’s] prose is vivid without being misleading–surely one of the hallmarks of good science writing. . . . We should be sure to heed the lessons of E. coli. Those little stinkers have been around a lot longer than...

Product Details


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're playing host today May 11, 2008
Format:Hardcover
You didn't possess a single one when you were born. Now, there are trillions of them, mostly enjoying the warm hospitality of your gut. If you are recently born, they may have been put into you on purpose. They are the famous/infamous Escherichia coli microbes of our inner selves - billions of them residing peacefully in each of our intestinal tracts. Carl Zimmer has added yet another gem in his crown as North America's premier science writer with this comprehensive and insightful account. Zimmer's talent lies in taking up serious science that deals with complex issues, and then putting it down in a way that seizes and holds your interest. More importantly, he informs you on topics relevant to your daily life - and prompts you to think about future decisions. While the subject may seem off-beat or esoteric, rest assured that "Microcosm" is aptly titled, with a host of life's secrets tucked away in how this microbe lives.

The microbe was first identified in 1885 by Theodore Escherich, who was struck by the "massive, luxurious growth" it could achieve. He dubbed it "a common bacteria of the colon", having no idea of its prowess or future role. Renamed Escherichia coli in the following century, the microbe entered an unexpected role in research - from medicine to evolutionary biology. Zimmer stresses this role and its importance in science, technology, business and even government through this account. Understanding those roles is fundamental to understanding the importance of this fine book - and why it's important for you to read it.

E. coli long played an enigmatic role in science - it was "discovered" more than once. Microbiology, not unlike palaeoanthropology, was once divided between the "splitters" and the "lumpers".
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
With the trained eyes of a scientist and the soul of poet, eminent science writer Carl Zimmer takes us on an all too brief, yet fascinating, trek into contemporary biology, as seen from the perspective of the bacterium Escherichia coli, in his latest book, "Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life". More than a mere recounting of decades of elegant scientific research from the likes of Joshua Lederberg and Salvador Luria, among others, "Microcosm" is truly a book about contemporary biology itself, tying in almost every facet of it, from systematics to population genetics and ecology, and even, paleobiology. But it is a book that takes such an in-depth exploration of biology from the unique perspective of a rather most unassuming organism - or at least what readers might think - the bacterium E. coli, whose ubiquitous habitats include the intestinal tracts of humans and other mammals. Indeed, E. coli is truly a wonderful organismal metaphor for describing all of biology in its totality, as evidenced, for example, in one of Zimmer's terse chapters devoted to the evolution of cooperation amongst organisms via mechanisms such as natural selection and kin selection; an elegant experimental analogue to the types of selective pressures operating on other, more complex, organisms, including us. Indeed, "Microcosm" ought to be regarded as "Macrocosm", since Zimmer has offered an elegant, often poetic, exploration of all of biology, by demonstrating E. coli's scientific relevance to humanity.

If there is indeed one important underlying theme to "Microcosm", then perhaps it is the prevalence of sex in this single-celled organism, and its importance as a key ingredient in understanding evolution, which was recognized decades ago by a young Joshua Lederberg. Zimmer describes how E.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Universal Microbiology June 10, 2008
Format:Hardcover
Inside your gut are maybe a hundred trillion cells. The number is an interesting one, because these cells sitting in your digestive tract outnumber the neurons, muscle cells, and other cells that make "you" by ten to one. In other words, by the numbers, your own cells are a machine that exists to keep a huger number of cells alive in your intestines. Among those trillions of cells is a small population of _Escherichia coli_, one of the world's most important and most studied bacteria. They may be tiny, but they are numerous and they are not simple, and the lessons within _Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life_ (Pantheon) by science writer Carl Zimmer are that there is a complex cosmos of activity within _E. coli_, and there are relationships between one _E. coli_ and its fellow _E. coli_ and the other microbes churning in our guts, and there are relationships between _E. coli_ and the bigger animals that carry it. It is all as complicated as can be; we have come a long way in understanding some of these mysteries, but mysteries still abound. Zimmer's wonderful book keeps us from taking these humble bacteria for granted; as products of the same evolutionary processes that produced us, they have much in common with us.

Scientists make _E. coli_ a particular subject of investigation; it was one of the first microbes whose genome was fully mapped (1997). A few strains have toxins, but usually our own _E. coli_ are quietly going about their business and are a help to us. The intricacies of just one cell are astounding. An _E. coli_ has sixty million molecules which have to act just so to keep the bacterium living, and Zimmer examines a few of the intricate feedback systems involved.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars life is Just Fascinating
Over the past few years I have been led to read many interesting tomes on Earth and how we got to this point where understanding the actual subject can be broken down and explained... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Tone Ford
5.0 out of 5 stars Who knew?
I had no idea E. Coli was such a fascinating creature. I normally am a lazy reader, preferring good fiction to non-fiction, but this book kept me engaged for the whole time. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Who knew?
The author is a good writer, able to take the bacterium E. coli and show how interconnected we are on life's evolutionary journey through time. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Sunny
5.0 out of 5 stars A Look At How We Have Learned About Life By Studying A Bacteria
This book is a fascinating story about how we have learned about how genetics and cells work within our own bodies by studying one of the simplest forms of life, a bacteria called... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Andrew Wyllie
4.0 out of 5 stars science reading-group, all local copies gone. no worries!
nice used paperback, and cheap.... i can write in margins and hi-lite, to prepare for group discussions. can't do that with a library copy. good old amazon!
Published 8 months ago by S. D. liddell-jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Big environment under the microscope
I selected this read as an expansion of my knowledge about bacteria and biochemistry. It did not disappoint. Read more
Published 14 months ago by evelyn novotny
4.0 out of 5 stars Very infomtive
This was a very interesting book that I felt could be described as "The Selfish Gene" (by Richard Dawkins) of microbiology. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Madeline Whistler
4.0 out of 5 stars What more could you want to know about E. coli
This is a very engaging book about E. coli. I am not finding it quite as engaging as some of Zimmers other books but still fascinating.
Published 18 months ago by Spizaklw
5.0 out of 5 stars Turned Science on its Head for Me
The first few chapters of this book contain a lot of history that I already know. Specifically, the long-time-coming agreement on DNA as a molecule of heredity. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Jordan Farr
5.0 out of 5 stars Zimmer does it again
This is superlative, engrossing science writing. Carl Zimmer is intrepid and articulate. E Coli is right up there with Parasite Rex.
Published 20 months ago by David A. Christopher
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More About the Author

I write books about science. Nature fascinates me, as does its history.

So far, I've written twelve books, including Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. In addition to my books, I also write regularly about science for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including National Geographic and Wired. I've won awards for my work from the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My blog, The Loom, is published by National Geographic Magazine (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/blog/the-loom).

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