Mr. Zimmer’s gut feeling

Carl Zimmer - Microcosm How well do you know yourself? Did you know that your body contains ten times more bacterial cells than its own cells? We are used to having the story of life told to us from a human perspective. The normal way of portraying nature is by telling stories of cheetahs and gazelles, dinosaurs and mammoths, or like in Sweden, stories about moose. This is a book that turns all that upside down.

One the most numerous of the bacterial species within you is Escherichia coli – or E.coli, as it's known to scientists, government officials, and news editors alike. Over the last century it has also been the experimental organism of choice for microbiologists seeking to answer just about any of the great questions within the biological realm, from the core mechanisms of evolution itself to the genetic origin of altruistic behaviour. So, if you want to know more about yourself, learning more about E. coli is a good idea. And there is no better introduction than reading Carl Zimmer's "Microcosm".

If you focus hard enough on a particular phenomenon, it sometimes seems like that phenomenon has been involved in all major historical events. From the E. coli thriving in your own, hopefully healthy, gut to those that spread disease like wildfire through battlefields and cities during World War II and others during the EHEC outbreak in Germany 2011, this is one species of bacteria that keeps drawing attention to itself. It's a survivor. Batter it with antibiotics and it comes back at you with resistance. But in learning to live with E. coli, we can also gain insights into many of life's secrets.

In "Microcosm", E. coli itself drives the narrative. While not offering as original a perspective as Rebecca Skloot's brilliant "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks", it zips through evolutionary and scientific theory with this single, common and in many ways unremarkable bacterium in focus.

The book should be of interest for a more general audience. It describes some of the central problems in biology in a few paragraphs, and by using the scientific problem as a murder in a detective story, Zimmer portrays E. coli providing clues for the scientists so that ultimately the problem can be solved.

This is not only a book for those who are interested in science, it's also a book for those of you who would like to know more about the bugs in your gut. And if your interest in Carl Zimmer has been piqued, you can always check out some shorter pieces at "The Loom", over at National Geographic's Phenomena blogs. I still haven't seen a single posting there on moose, but several on bacteria and viruses.