Microcosm: E.coli And The New Science Of Life, by Carl Zimmer
From soiled nappies comes a tiny wonder – with a giant role in genetics
Wednesday 09 July 2008
One of the things that makes humans different is our curiosity to poke around in the innards of other creatures. When they first got acquainted with zillions of microscopic bacteria, scientists thought their own innards pretty uninteresting. They were dead wrong.
In this satisfying piece of popular science, Carl Zimmer shows how almost the whole of biology can be unfolded from a tiny, rod-shaped organism first found in soiled nappies a bit over a century ago. Escherichia coli – named after the intrepid nappy-scraper Theodor Escherich – is a normally innocuous dweller in the human gut, and many other places it can get a living. But this minute wonder can sense its surroundings, swim around, and co-operate with its bacterial siblings. It has a kind of sex, on occasion, responds to its environment, is shaped by its history, and tries to fight off attacks from bigger bacteria and much smaller viruses.
As Zimmer relates, E. coli is more than a convenient emblem of life's ingenuity. It has been the focus of work in a thousand labs, and given up innumerable secrets about the inner workings of the cell. Thanks to E. coli, we know how genes work, how they are regulated, and how their switches and modulators form subtle networks. The beast has given insight into evolution, behaviour and even ecology. Layer by layer, Zimmer shows how the intricate details of a bacterium relate to problems all organisms face.
His book comes from the US, so has to spend a while debunking creationism's dumber younger brother, intelligent design. This is apt because E. coli's cunningly assembled flagellum is a prime exhibit in the creationists' case: that life is equipped with machines which they cannot believe arose by chance. As usual, look properly and you find lots of intermediate forms, all doing something useful – if not propelling their host along. The flagellum, like antibiotic resistance, undoubtedly evolved.
There follows an excursion into the history and politics of genetic engineering, which may not hold the attention of all those gripped by the unpacking of the bacterium's bag of tricks. There are intriguing scientists there, some beautiful experiments, and medical and industrial developments with high stakes. But the real star of the show remains a tiny, versatile organism which is happily dining off your last meal as you read this.
Jon Turney is writing 'The Rough Guide to the Future'
Heinemann, £20. Order for £18 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Salisbury ranked seventh-best city in the world to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015
- 2 Disney announces new female-led film Moana
- 3 Banksy not arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Kentucky gang rape: 15-year-old boy left in critical condition after sexual attack by group at party
- 5 Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Disney announces new female-led film Moana
Eight seconds of white noise is top of the Canadian iTunes chart because people love Taylor Swift that much
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt is intriguing as unsympathetic war hero
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
Peep Show series 9: Final season to air on Channel 4 in 2015
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Jose Manuel Barroso warns David Cameron against making 'historic mistake' over immigration reforms