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Biology as Seen from E. coli, a mere Bacterium, Courtesy of Carl Zimmer,
This review is from: Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life (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. coli has demonstrated the veracity of Darwin's concept of natural selection, via an elegant "slot machine" experiment designed by Salvador Luria, and culminating now in the ongoing experiment by microbial ecologist Richard Lenski; Zimmer's engaging account of which is among the most important highlights of this book (Yet as a brief aside, I am surprised Zimmer did not mention that Lenski's research is offering experimental proof of evolutionary stasis, as defined by paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in their theory of punctuated equilibrium; a point emphasized in a relatively recent paper co-authored by Lenski, Eldredge and others.). Zimmer also devotes ample time touching on other aspects of E. coli's evolutionary ecology from a public health perspective, tracing the origins of epidemics caused by toxic strains of this otherwise benign prokaryote. There is also, regrettably, ample discussion too of creationist interest in E. coli as an example of an organism created by an "Intelligent Designer"; Zimmer notes correctly that creationists were interested in its flagellum years before the bacterial flagellum became important "proof" supporting leading Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe's concept of "Irreducible Complexity", and how this "proof" was demolished effectively by prominent Intelligent Design critic Ken Miller during the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial.