The Boston Globe reviews Microcosm: "Superb"

In today’s Boston Globe, Anthony Doerr praises Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life as “quietly revolutionary.”

As scientists study the genes of more and more strains of E. coli, they’re finding that foreign DNA has been steadily pouring into the genome. Not only is E. coli mutating within itself, it’s also claiming new genes from elsewhere.

A major source of this input is viruses. As Zimmer notes, “Viruses are quickly losing their reputation as insignificant parasites.” Viruses, we now know, pick up genes from one host and plug them like cassette tapes into the genome of a new host. This sort of gene-leapfrogging is called horizontal gene transfer, and it’s not limited to bacteria and viruses. We’ve already identified around 100,000 viruses in the human genome, and the vestiges of 150,000 more.

What findings like this, and writers as capable as Zimmer, force us to ask is: What does it mean to be a human being? Are the barriers between species really as distinct and inviolable as we think they are? If human beings were nothing at all like bacteria, why would pharmaceutical companies be able to successfully plug human genes into microbes like E. coli?

Here’s the whole review. And the Amazon link.

0 thoughts on “The Boston Globe reviews Microcosm: "Superb"

  1. I just finished “Microcosm …”, and it is at least as good as The Globe said. But, I found one thing very frustrating. I think I can safely be called a “mechanician” in its old sense. I’ve been a surveyor, I’ve built race cars, I’ve tinkered with electronic circuits, and I know how to use all the tools employed by those trades. But, I have no concept of what it means to perform all those operations you describe. For example, “slicing” and “splicing” are things I know how to do mechanically, but not chemically. Of course, I don’t even understand enough about the things that are being sliced and spliced to begin to grok the whole thing.

    I need some pictures.

    Can you direct me to any sources that describe (with lots of drawings) the microbes and the operations performed on them?

  2. I just finished reading Microcosm and loved it. Very thought provoking.

    I just have one question that appears on page 190 of the book and also in the review above. Assuming that there are 100,000 viruses embedded in the human plus 150,000 vestiges of more, and given a minimum of one gene per virus, that implies there are 250,000 foreign genes in the human genome compared to just the 18,000 genes that make us. And, certainly, viruses have many more genes than just one. Can this ratio of foreign genes to native genes possibly be correct?

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