Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: Microcosm

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of Carl Zimmer. His blog, The Loom, is a great way to keep up with the latest scientific developments in words that a layperson can understand. His other books (I've read Parasite Rex, At the Water's Edge, and Soul Made Flesh) have been quite good. His newest book, on the bacterium E. coli, was also an enjoyable and educational read.

I find I get the most out of science writing when it's on a subject outside of my expertise. I loved Parasite Rex for this reason, because parasitology, despite being utterly fascinating, is often overlooked in general biology classes. I'm training to be a neuroscientist, so I don't really study bacteria (although, they are handy when I need to produce vast quantities of DNA for use in experiments on organisms that actually have a nervous system). Therefore, I learned a lot from this book about the complicated genetic circuits that can exist in such a simple organism.

I knew some basic facts about E. coli from my genetics classes (operons, phages, plasmids, bacterial sex...), but I had never studied the mechanisms by which the germ senses chemicals in its environment and chooses its method of locomotion accordingly. These little bacteria, with only the most rudimentary of sensory organs, manage to locate food sources and move toward them, or move away from noxious chemicals. This is really pretty amazing when you think about it. I mean, I have a fully functional brain and have still been known to accidentally drink sour milk. The bacteria also form complicated bacterial "cities," called biofilms, in which they seem capable of cooperation and even altruism, sacrificing themselves for the good of the colony. All this, without so much as a nucleus! They are some pretty impressive little cells.

The little details about scientists that get thrown into this book really add a lot of flavor to the potentially dull retelling E. coli biology's history. People writing "Hooray!" in their notebooks when an experiment works, husband-and-wife teams cracking the genetic code of bacteria, experiments testing just how long an E. coli colony can live that span multiple generations of researchers... these touches make the stories seem more real to me. I can picture the labs, the distinctive red graph paper notebooks, the begloved grad students. I can almost smell the Luria broth.

Some of the later chapters tackle genetic engineering and synthetic biology, both hot-button scientific issues with E. coli inspiring their biggest advances. While Zimmer covers some of the controversy, I would have enjoyed more discussion on this, and perhaps a little less of the basic genetics that I already knew. I'm a pretty specialized reader, though, and can appreciate how important that background knowledge is if one isn't already a biologist. I can also appreciate that the book should not be allowed to grow indefinitely long, and debating the ethical issues in full detail is probably a book in and of itself.

Overall, I'd say that Microcosm makes enlightening reading for anyone who's already a biology enthusiast, but perhaps might be a hard sell for non-bacteria fans. I still think Parasite Rex is Zimmer's most jaw-droppingly fascinating book (perhaps because parasites can become so creepily entwined with brain function -- I love that stuff!), but I'd probably rate this one as his second best. Give it a read, why don't you?

(Cross-posted from my GoodReads page. View all of my book reviews.)

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