Saturday, January 29, 2011

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life

I'm a bit of a bibliophile, I cannot resist picking up a potentially fascinating book. I've actually lost count of how many I have and doubt I'll ever have a working number. My collection is considered a bit odd as it is almost entirely non-fiction (my collection is big enough that I've given lists to local professors to compliment the rather sad science section of the library). While I do enjoy a well written story I generally prefer to come away from a book knowing more about a subject than when I picked it up. As such I've decided I might as well start reviewing some of them here. To start out with, I'll go over the one I've most recently finished Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer.

To start out with I would like to explain how I got my copy. I had ordered it online as a used copy through either Amazon or, I cannot remember which. It was being sold for only a couple dollars because it was not only used but there was some writing inside of it. This honestly did not bother me as I was just happy to get a copy at such a good price. When I received it in the mail I opened it up to see the condition. The dust cover has a minor tear, but everything else seemed in good order. I then go looking for this writing, thinking it will be just some notes. I find this not to be the case. The writing that made the seller think it was now junk turned out to be the author's signature! Apparently when Carl Zimmer released this book, he signed a limited number of first editions. I just happened to somehow wind up with one of those all thanks to someone else's ignorance.

The book itself was a wonderful read. I started reading while taking a Microbiology course and in the end, learned more from the book then I ever did in class. Granted, I am the kind who learns better on my own then through traditional classes, but the difference was still significant.

Carl Zimmer goes through the history of humanities experimentation with E. coli and how it has allowed us to unlock the secrets of genetics, gene expression, how bacteria compete and evolve, transgenics and even the origins of life itself. He describes the tangled web of gene circuitry so well that I am able to envision in my mind the basic workings of a micro-organism now.

I have known the role of epigenetics as a major function in organisms for a while but only after reading this book can I say that I have a good enough understanding to reverse engineer the process mentally. In fact it did so well as to inspire me to write my earlier post on a possible way to combat antibiotic resistant bacterial strains.

Carl Zimmer also takes a bit of his time to use the knowledge gained from studying E. Coli to destroy creationist and 'intelligent' design arguments. Including how such information was used to demolish the intelligent design arguments during the Dover trial over using ID textbooks.

I really cannot recommend this book enough for both those with just a general interest in the sciences as well as those with an extensive science background. It unravels a concept that is alien to so many of us, the inner workings and lives of bacteria, leaving the reader with a sense of familiarity and a deeper understanding.
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