Mini book reviews: popular microbiology

The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn

Basic idea: We evolved as part of an ecosystem that included not just microbes, but internal and external parasites, predators, and the many species of a hunted/gathered diet. Our bodies now have adaptations to organisms that aren’t there anymore – an immune system that goes haywire when parasites are missing, psychology that stems from a healthy fear of predators, etc.

Best part: the lady who, after careful research and exhausting her other options, goes to a clinic in Tijuana to get infected with parasitic worms. The worms are cultivated from the poop of the clinic owner, who is not a doctor. They would, ideally, live inside her for years. “The endeavor felt more like adopting a pet than modern medicine.”

Worst part: The book is long on stretched-out storytelling, light on actual facts. An air of gullibility from mentioning one or two simplistic theories about each complicated problem, and then moving on. The further you go into the book, the more unbridled speculation abounds. Nice ideas but needs more grounding in reality.

Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Basic idea: We’ve learned a lot from E. coli in the lab (and in the wild). Zimmer takes us through major discoveries in genetics and cell biology, learned through the lens of E. coli but applicable to, in most cases, all the rest of life.

Best part: All the complicated, crazy stuff E. coli does in the wild that we don’t see in the lab. “To know E. coli by [lab strain] K-12 alone is a bit like knowing the family Canidae from a Pomeranian dozing on a silk pillow.” It finds friends, wages warfare against enemies, builds biofilms, executes a multi-stage plan for colonizing a gut, and hosts parasites of its own.

Worst part: Has been scrubbed of all terminology that would help you google anything, or recognize it if you read about it elsewhere; for example, the names of the genes or processes being (however skillfully) analogized. The Notes section provides no notes, just citations in the most minimal form possible.

The Invisible Kingdom by Idan Ben-Barak

Basic idea: Humorous tour of microbes in our lives.

Best part: Lots of little tidbits, like how D. radiodurans keeps its DNA radiation-resistant, the sidebar on tardigrades, the list of things around the house we could get rid of if there were no microbes. “Give [the dishes] a quick rinse in the sink, and that’s it. Food scraps will no longer make you ill or taste bad, so you can leave them on, if you like.”

Worst part: Whole chapters of apologizing for talking about science in a science book.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Beth Skwarecki » Swabbing your nooks and crannies for science — July 14, 2012 @ 12:50 am

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