Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life

Published By: Pantheon

Book Category: Non-Fiction, Science

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Reviewed by Brent and Jamie Driggers

The word and the organism, E. coli, can strike fear in the hearts of many. Food poisoning outbreaks! Drug resistance! Of course the organism is also a necessary part of human life. Without the colonization of “good” E. coli, our bodies could well be overrun by pathogens. But even removing those two sides of the equation, there is still so much more to this little microbe than being either the death or salvation of us. This single-celled organism is more like us than most people imagine and has provided insight into many of life’s mysteries.

What we know about DNA basically originated in studies of E. coli. What we know about mutations and adaptations we first learned in E. coli. What we know of drug resistance began in E. coli. Protein folding, viruses, the internet and “noise” each have an understanding somewhat due to E. coli. We can even get E. coli to make stuff for us that it has no reason to make other than we told it to. Who knows, it may soon be the cure for cancer. That’s one impressive creature.

Microcosm is a well-written and fascinating look at a creature that has a bad rap, considering all it has taught us. Zimmer does an awesome job of storytelling the history behind each of the discoveries, and part of the book, particularly the beginning of each chapter, are very easy to read. However there are often details that I found hard to follow, which surprised me considering I studied and did research with E. coli for several years.

I almost wonder if my history did more to hinder my reading and if someone with less knowledge on the subject matter would enjoy the book more. He also leans heavily towards the old-earth Darwinian point of view, so people hypersensitive to evolutionary beliefs might want to be aware of that. In my experience, though, people of faith in the sciences have mostly learned to take evolutionary discussion in stride, and his approach isn’t “in your face” so much as “matter of fact.” Whether readers want to agree with his fact is up to them.

Armchair Interviews agrees.

Author’s Web site: http://www.CarlZimmer.com

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