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Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 6, 2008
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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)
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“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 we have, and they have some story to tell.” —The New York Sun
“It’s this simple. Carl Zimmer is one our very best science writers. If not the absolute best, bar none.” —Scienceblogs.com
“[Microcosm] delivers what a science book should; it reveals the new and re-enchants the old.” —Prospect Magazine
“[Zimmer is] an American science writer at the zenith of his profession. . . . [He] has woven a fascinating tapestry, intercalating the energy of world-changing scientific discovery with the fascinating complexity of a well-understood living organism. His work will be welcomed by the scientist and the science enthusiast.” —The Journal of Clinical Investigation
“An educational tour-de-force. . . . [Zimmer] brings remarkable talents to popular science writing: ability to write succinct, lively prose; genius at applying familiar words to replace the jargon of scientific terms; intelligence to grasp complex ideas . . . and instincts of an investigative reporter. These talents are amply exhibited in Microcosm.” —Microbe magazine
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Top Customer Reviews
This is the kind of science book that should come out every 5 to 10 years to help keep the lay person up to date on what is going in the fields of scientific discovery, particularly the life sciences, to see what we are discovering and how it applies to us as persons. This is the type of book which explains the field so the common person can understand without having to have a college degree in life sciences.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about science and is curious about how all the microorganisms that are contained in our bodies work. Also the discussion about how scientists determined how genes affect certain traits and how this was determined is good for those interested in genetics.
I heard of this book when the author was interviewed on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast. The book went immediately on to my Kindle wish list. My interests are more in the physical sciences rather than the biological sciences but I always thought I had an adequate grounding in the latter. Be that as it may the book demonstrated how completely out of touch I had become with current biological progress.
Briefly, the book provides an exhaustive look at the relationship between man and E. coli. Not only does the the latter form colonies in the intestines of all humans it has played a central role as a research tool in man's understanding of evolution, genetics, molecular biology, genetic engineering, and more. Author Zimmer lays it all out in fascinating detail.
I did have a few problems. The illustrations provided were helpful but more were needed. Some of the descriptions of various experiments had to be read multiple times before they became clear and the conclusions drawn from them made sense. A glossary would have been welcome although the Kindle's dictionary made up for the lack.
One thing that does distract is the constant anthropomorphizing. E. coli, their components, genes, enzymes, proteins, etc are constantly referred to in such a way that makes one think they are sentient beings. The author might have spent some more time explaining what is really going on.
The Kindle edition is first rate; everything works exactly as it should. There is a notes section that references the text by sentence instead of numbered superscripts. These aren't linked on the Kindle; it would have been awkward perhaps if they were. As it stands, while this unusual arrangement might have worked for the print edition, for the Kindle it's inadequate. There is also an exhaustive bibliography.
I'm not sure if this book can be fully appreciated by the average man on the street. It seems to assume a solid grasp of at least high school biology so it might not be accessible to everyone. But highly recommended otherwise.
I will make two suggestions. One, a glossary would be very helpful. The lay reader (his intended audience) is not very familiar with the arcane biological types that are continuously bantered about. A glossary would not be difficult to produce, or too lengthy to add. I'm really curious as to why a glossary was not added because it seems such an obvious thing to do.
Two, along the same lines, a chart or diagram to display major kinds of microcosms, maybe a sort of tree branching. It would let a lay reader visualize the different branches of bacteria, viruses, e-coli and variations (perhaps evolutionary branching, and a time scale - that would be wonderful), etc.
I write this review after having read about 90% of the book, but continue to be frustrated by the above two absences.
Nevertheless, a very worthwhile book. I highly recommend it, especially if Mr. Zimmer and his publisher would make the two additions on the next printing.Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life
After that point however, the book picks up with incredible speed. It tells you things that you've never heard of at an alarming rate. There is simply so much about all organisms that I had no idea about. Chapters 7 and 8 were particularly amazing.
The book is not simply about E.coli. While it does focus on the prokaryote, it actually draws parallels, doles out anecdotes, or presents primary evidence on much larger organisms. To call it a book of simply E. coli would be misleading, as it draws many conclusions on life as a whole (and in some parts, its origins).
The book is phenomenal, and not too technical for the average Joe. To put it simply, just get it.