The Wednesday Book
MICROCOSM: E.COLI AND THE NEW SCIENCE OF LIFE By Carl Zimmer HEINEMANN, Pounds 20 Order for Pounds 18 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
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. …