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63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're playing host today, May 11, 2008
This review is from: Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life (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". Was each similar but distinct new organism a new species or just a variation on a theme. In E. coli's case, the "lumpers" prevailed and Zimmer explains clearly about "strains" of E. coli and their significance to us. The "K-12" strain is the one chiefly used as a standard for biological research. It's considered harmless to humans - as one researcher demonstrated by drinking a water glass filled with it. On the other hand, not long after Escherich's discovery, a Japanese scientist who was trying to fathom an outbreak of dysentery, isolated a bacterium resembling the German's find. Thinking it a different species, they named it "Shigella". It wasn't a new species, it was a strain of E. coli. That strain "O157:H7" plays a large role in this book because it is a serious disrupter of the human gut. And we brought it into existence.

The ubiquitous nature of E. coli and the various strains identified rendered it the workhorse of biological research laboratories. It is easy to modify by changing conditions like food supplies, temperature and assaulting it with viruses or chemicals all provide answers to how it works. In so doing, it also explains to us how life works, and how it likely worked in the past. Advances in technologies not only provided maps of E. coli's genome, it was found the genome could be tampered with successfully. Genes could be removed and inserted. So long as the basic life-support genes were left unscathed, E. coli would merrily perform for the scientists. Viruses might be resisted or even ousted after an infection. More astonishing to early researchers, it was seen that E. coli could pick up genes from a virus or other microbes and change its own genome. Today, there are those contending viruses inserting genes into DNA have driven evolution itself. Why do we have over 3 billion base pairs in a genome with only 18 thousand working genes? Invading viruses in our ancestors - and those of E. coli - have left traceable remnants.

The author doesn't confine himself to accounts of laboratory research and analyses. E. coli research has led to numerous social and even legal questions. The latter is best revealed in a lively account of the recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. There, a school board insisted on biology teachers reading a challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The board demanded the adding of elements of the "intelligent design" proposal to the course. Zimmer's account of the testimony and witness exchanges resulted in the presiding judge dismissing "ID" as based on fallacious assumptions and bearing no scientific credibility. The social questions are broader and of greater concern. Forty years ago, as the potential for E. coli as a working tool to manipulate genetic information emerged, public outcry and researchers' own reflections on possibilities led to a brief interruption in "genetic engineering" efforts. With various safeguards in place, Zimmer explains, advances continued. He notes that fears about things like "Frankenfood" are generally baseless, given the long history of Nature's own tinkering with genetic processes. An informed, reasoned approach is required to determine which claims for benefits are possible and which threats, if any, need further addressing. He even manages to address issues in "exobiology", the prospect of either finding life on another planet, or introducing it there.

The wide sweep of topics, thoroughly and effectively addressed by this author make this book a treat to read and an asset to retain. It's Pulitzer or Aventis Prize material and deserves the highest recognition. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 11, 2008 10:31:51 PM PDT
Mary Whipple says:
Love your title, Steven. The book sounds like something right up your alley, so to speak. I think I'll stick to fiction. :-) Mary

Posted on May 11, 2008 10:32:11 PM PDT
Mary Whipple says:
Love your title, Steven. The book sounds like something right up your alley, so to speak. I think I'd better stick to fiction. :-) Mary
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