Saturday, June 28, 2008

Microcosm

How does one go about weaving a compelling story about a seemingly simple gut bacterium?

For me it was rather simple: I didn't even try. That didn't get the story very far, though, so thank goodness that there are people around who can do it. I don't need to, and hey, anyone who visits here knows that writing compelling narrative is not my strong suit. That's what Carl Zimmer is for.

'Bout 10 minutes ago I closed the book that contains this remarkable story Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, and I couldn't resist the urge to write a little something about it. I am not a complete layman when it comes to E. coli, in fact I hijack it's machinery quite frequently. I've used it for such diverse things as developing and testing a detection and quantification method for toxic algae to figuring out microbial communities' components. It is as essential to my work as the mechanics' socket wrench is to theirs. Though the mechanic may take that socket wrench for granted, I shall no longer do the same with my E. coli.

I never really worried too much about how this little bug came to be the wonderful tool that it is, though I knew it has been deployed for all kinds of useful things. Diabetic friends of mine use human insulin produced by huge vats of E. coli, for instance.

Zimmer's prose in this book is classic Zimmer style. He has developed a voice that explains in conversational and understandable ways some of the most complicated bits of biology. Heck, my retired non-scientist father devoured Evolution: Triumph of an Idea and came back to me with some questions that clearly showed that Zimmer's writing helped evolution make sense to him. Call it the "father test." If my Dad can read a biology book that lays out fairly complex topics cover to cover in a week and not only understand it, but enjoy it, that's good writing.

Throughout the book, Zimmer repeats Monod's quote "What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant." He uses this non-intuitive phrase to great rhetorical purpose. As he takes us through the discovery of this humble little gut bug, the stories of the scientists who figured out many of its inner workings, and eventually how to manipulate them, Monod's quote is the recurrent chorus. The story of modern biology, with all of its various uses and troubles, Zimmer shows us, is the story of E. coli.

Zimmer takes us from the beginning, with the discovery of the bug, through the process of proving it even had genes. He takes us through the experiments that Lederberg conducted to demonstrate that E. coli had sex, in a series of not-very-racy scenes (hey, he's not writing that kind of book).

He leads us through how scientists learned it can get sick and that those viruses had genes, too; similar genes to the host they infect. From these humble beginnings, he takes us through the development of E. coli as a serious, though somewhat messy and stinky tool that has proven to be an essential part of modern biology. If E. coli sex and illness sound "neat to know, but useless" read the book. It's truly amazing the power of those two little facts and the impact they have had on modern biology.

There were several moments where I was reminded of facts of life I have taken for granted, until I saw it written in Zimmer's evocative prose. The sheer numbers of these bugs in our guts and indeed their necessity for our survival, was one I need to store away to squick out new lab interns. The truth about the integrity of "humanity" is something I'll let you discover on your own.

In short, I guess this review all boils down to a few points:
->if you like bacteria, buy the book,
->if you don't care about bacteria, buy the book 'cause, really Zimmer uses E. coli as a window to "the new science of life"
->just buy the damn book, it's a great read.

Next time someone tells you that science and understanding takes away the wonder and awe, send 'em one of Zimmer's books to show them just how wrong they are.

Oh, I almost forgot! Galileo likes it too:

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