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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).
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".Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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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.Read more ›
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