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microcosm:
E. coli and the
New Science of Life

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Reviews:

The Boston Globe
"Superb...quietly revolutionary." Read the full review.

Prospect Magazine
Microcosm "delivers what a science book should; it reveals the new and re-enchants the old." Read the full review.

The Guardian
"This is a thought-provoking book that wrenches us from our human-centred perspective and gives us a guide to life through the chemical-sensing molecules of a species that was here long before we were, and which will certainly outlive us.” (Read the full review)

The Times of London
[Zimmer] "comes up with turns of phrase and images that are deep delights. The ways in which the structure of the cell depends on the tempo of different molecular processes give it a “geography of rhythms”; the building of a flagellum, which takes longer than the bacterium's replication, is like building a medieval cathedral, in that “a new microbe inherits a partially built tail and passes it on, still unfinished, to its descendants”. (Another flagellar delight is the way in which Zimmer shows that, far from being a structure that could not evolve stepwise, as proponents of intelligent design would have you believe, this complex corkscrew actually reveals its evolved status clearly down at the molecular and genetic level.) Perhaps the phrase that will resonate with me longest, though, is the one he uses to frame the discussion of E. coli as a workhorse of biotechnology and a proving ground for the more ambitious redesigns of life - “playing nature” - so much richer in its implications than the tediously Faustian “playing God”. If you want to get a clearer idea of the sort of nature that science can now play with, this is the book for you.".

New Scientist
"It is a powerful account of the dynamic, complicated and social world we share with this ordinary yet remarkable bug. Evolution and genetics glitter among the pages, as do the lives and experiments of the scientists who have studied them. Microcosm is exciting, original and wholly persuasive of the beauty and utility of looking at the largest of issues from the smallest perspectives."

Science
"A popular science book on E. coli may not sound like the most interesting read. However, Microcosm is just that. The next time you hear of an outbreak of nasty E. coli on the news, spare a thought for this minute creature, which has arguably helped advance humanity far further than any other organism. Not only has it inhabited human guts for as long as we have existed, it has benefited almost all areas of the biosciences, from genetic engineering to evolutionary theory. To really understand life, it seems we must pay close attention to this bug’s life."

New York Times Book Review
"From Victorian England to contemporary America, creationists have often denied that we are related to other primates. But the hard truth of our genealogy does even greater damage to human pride. We are cousins of every living thing, including the billions of E. coli bacteria in our intestines. This kinship may not be flattering, but it is useful. By studying these tiny creatures, we learn about other organisms, including ourselves. As the French biologist Jacques Monod once said, “What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant.

"Carl Zimmer effectively applies this principle in his engrossing new book, “Microcosm,” relating the study of these microbes to larger developments in biology and thoughtfully discussing the social implications of science."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"For readers who enjoy a seat at the revolution and a chance to ponder the ’supple little bugs’ at the dawn of life, Microcosm is a bracing read. This timely book deserves shelf space near Lewis Thomas’ classic, Lives of a Cell.” (Read the full review)

Ars Technica
"Covering all of life is a big task, and Zimmer made the challenge that much harder on himself by choosing to target the book to a general audience. Still, he handles the challenge extraordinarily well." (Review, interview)

Columbia Journalism Review
"It is a story of discovery that illuminates a microscopic and alien world and explains how it has helped guide the course of human history. Anybody that picks up a copy will find that Zimmer has produced a book not just about E. coli, but about microbiology and evolution itself.” (Read the full review)

Forbes
"In biology, "what is true for E. coli is true for the elephant," a maxim that has held for more than a century of experimentation on the common gut bacterium, leading to breakthroughs in fields ranging from immunology to genetics. As science journalist Carl Zimmer writes in his informative and entertaining biography of biologists' favorite microbe, E. coli is a living "philosopher's stone." E. coli's simplicity is its most valued attribute, allowing scientists to systematically track its metabolism and the basic functions of all but 600 of its 4,288 genes. Yet, for the mountain of data that has been painstakingly collected, there is something equally marvelous about an organism that can perform every essential function of life without nervous system or nucleus, negotiating its needs for food, habitat and even occasional sex with its celebrated spinning flagella. Creationists have taken the flagellum's astonishing micromechanics as proof of intelligent design. But today, scientists are shedding new light on the evolutionary arc of that wondrous little machine. Their findings should speak volumes about the elephant.."

Daily Kos
"Carl Zimmer is a master story teller...Not until I sat down to write this review did it really hit me just how packed this book is with science, each chapter written so well it can stand alone as a specific object lesson, and each lesson coming together in the book with biology, historical characters, and eureka moments in a scrumptious blend of mind candy.ot until I sat down to write this review did it really hit me just how packed this book is with science, each chapter written so well it can stand alone as a specific object lesson, and each lesson coming together in the book with biology, historical characters, and eureka moments in a scrumptious blend of mind candy."

MSNBC
"Can a whole book actually be written about one single-celled organism? Microcosm pulls off the feat by using the E. coli bacterium as a guidepost to life's secrets."

The Independent
"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.."

New York Sun
"The poet William Blake imagined what it would be like 'to see the world in a grain of sand.' Reading "Microcosm" (Pantheon, 243 pages, $25.95), Carl Zimmer's new book on the world's most famous bacterium, one wonders whether Blake might have phrased his reverie differently if he had had an electron microscope. Had Blake looked closely enough, at a magnification that would make sand grains look like lifeless, barren mountains, the poet would have seen a remarkably complex creature, one so beguiling that it is, as Mr. Zimmer's title suggests, easy to imagine it as a world in miniature. The bacterium, whose genome scientists mapped fully by 1997, fights viruses, just as we do; it fights its enemies, just as we do; it even has a primitive kind of sex. It is, the author argues persuasively, a model organism, and one with much to teach our own species."

Discover Magazine
"E. coli makes me sick. And that’s not all it does. The minuscule, cigar-shaped bacterium can survive on a diet of TNT. It can band into factions and wage war—complete with chemical weapons and suicide bombers—against its enemies. It can be used to build a camera or be fashioned into a microscopic factory that churns out drugs and maybe even biofuels. And it bears a striking resemblance to the Internet.

The microbe, notorious for its disease-causing variants that sometimes hitch rides on spinach leaves and undercooked hamburger meat, is actually an integral part of intestinal ecology. Harmless versions of E. coli swarm by the trillion in every healthy human’s gut and can outnumber a newborn’s own cells by ten to one. Doctors have even been known to inoculate premature infants with protective strains to ward off infection by pathogens.

Scientists may understand E. coli better than any other critter on the planet. Experiments on it have illustrated what genes are made of, confirmed Darwinian evolution, and helped sequence the human genome. With Microcosm, this award-winning science writer has turned out an illuminating biography of one of biology’s most influential—and underappreciated—players.."

Publisher's Weekly
"Written in elegant, even poetic prose, Zimmer's well-crafted exploration should be required reading for all well-educated readers."

Steven Johnson
author of The Ghost Map and Mind Wide Open
"Carl Zimmer may be my favorite science writer around today (others seem to agree), so I'm excited to report that his new book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life hit the shelves yesterday. I had the opportunity to read it in manuscript form, and it's really an exceptional book -- what Carl calls an "(un)natural history of E. coli" -- the world's most famous microbe. Having just published a book that partially starred a bacterium myself, I know how hard it is to make a book about microbial life engaging to human readers, but Carl pulls it off brilliantly here -- it's creepy, mind-twisting, and delightful all at the same time. It's the kind of book that literally expands your perspective on the world -- it helps you see how this alternative universe of tiny life forms is bound up crucially in our own day-to-day experience.."

Sean B. Carroll
author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest
"Microcosm could well be entitled Fantastic Voyage. Carl Zimmer, one of our most talented and respected science writers, guides us on a memorable journey into the invisible, but amazing world within and around a tiny bacterium. He reveals a life or death battle every bit as dramatic as that on the Serengeti and one that offers profound insights into how life is made and evolves. Microcosm expands our sense of wonder by illuminating a microscopic universe few could imagine, and instills a great sense of pride in the great achievements of the scientists who have discovered and mastered its workings."

Library Journal
"The scientists, their work, and the ethical questions with which they wrestle are sensitively profiled, and Zimmer employs imagery to great effect, leaving the reader with the sense of having attended a well-executed museum exhibit intended for intelligent adults."

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