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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]
0Comment| 9 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 8 August 2008
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.
0Comment| 5 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 9 August 2008
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.
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on 20 January 2013
Covers a lot of areas, for example micro biology , genetic engineering and bio technology. Not in great detail but in away that is easy to understand.
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on 31 December 2015
As described and in excellent condition.
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