Escherichia coli is a superstar of the microbe world. Like Zelig, E. coli has been on the scene of some of the most important discoveries of biology. For example, Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod deciphered gene regulation using E. coli’s Lac Operon. Roger Kornberg discovered DNA polymerase using E. coli. Even E. coli’s parasites (phages) are better known than the vast majority of living things. The story of E. coli is an amazing one, so it is puzzling that E. coli does not have its own biography.
That is, until now: Microcosm.
And I couldn’t think of a better biographer than science writer Carl Zimmer.
Just this afternoon, I repeated a task I’ve done hundreds, if not thousands, of times: streaked out E. coli onto a plate of agar. As I did, I stopped to think of the opening passages of Microcosm, where Zimmer describes my former lab mate, Nadya Morales, doing exactly the same thing. Formerly this activity seemed so mundane, but now it seemed nothing short of amazing. I was taking some cells from suspended animation at -80C and spreading them on a bit of jelly, and within a day I would see millions upon millions of descendants. Zimmer made it seem positively gripping.
Later Zimmer described how E. coli lives at the brink of exploding, and I thought about how I observed single cells of E. coli being lysed by lambda phage. In less than 1 second after lambda’s proteins made a tiny hole in E. coli’s membrane, E. coli swelled up like a beach ball (well microscopic beach ball) and popped. It’s remarkable to behold, but the drama of what was happening never fully struck me until I read Zimmer’s passages.
E. coli has given us much knowledge of how living things work, but we haven’t retired it to the pasture for old microbes. In laboratories all across the country E. coli continues to reveal life’s innermost secrets. It plays host to my study organisms of choice: bacteriophages, and is used by other scientists to study genetics, evolution, ecology, and microbiology. Thousands of papers are published on E. coli every year. Yet to most people, E. coli is the bug on hamburgers that makes them sick.
Hopefully Zimmer’s book will help rehabilitate the image of this unsung hero of the Molecular Biology Revolution, and let the world know why this humble organism is a favorite of scientists everywhere.
Drawing: E. coli circa 1900 from a color poster used in lectures by Martinus W. Beijerinck, founder of the Delft School of Microbiology, and drawn by his sister Henrietta.