The Scientific Activist

E. coli, We Hardly Knew You

Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

by Carl Zimmer
Pantheon: 2008, 256 pages.
Buy now! (Amazon)

I come face-to-face with Escherichia coli every day. In a sense, we all do–as billions of E. coli inhabit every individual’s intestines. But for me, E. coli is a protein factory. I’m a structural biologist, and my work depends on being able to produce large amounts of specific proteins–generally proteins found in humans or mice. However, purifying large amounts of these proteins from humans or mice would be virtually impossible, and manipulating these proteins in the manner I need for my studies would be literally impossible. Instead, all I have to do is introduce a small piece of engineered DNA into a single E. coli bacterium–just one cell–and in less than 24 hours, I’ll have billions of E. coli bending to my will and producing milligrams of my protein of interest on demand.

This only works because, as Nobel laureate Jacques Monod once quipped, “What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant.” E. coli. along with all other forms of life share the same basic cellular machinery and the same genetic code, so a piece of DNA from one species will be read in exactly the same way (with a few caveats) in another species. It is because of this truism that scientists have been able to develop E. coli into a successful biotechnological tool and a model system for studying the basis of life. It is also from this truism that Carl Zimmer–accomplished science writer and blogger at The Loom–takes the name of the second chapter of his latest book, Microcosm.

In Microcosm, E. coli becomes much more than just a biotechnological tool, but a conduit for exploring the fundamentals of evolution, biological networks, cooperation, human health and disease, bioethics, our relationship with nature, and–of course–life itself. The so often unexamined life (at least for someone like me) of E. coli comes alive, and the reader discovers that–as so many microbiologists already have–E. coli is interesting in its own right. E. coli has many stories to tell, and Zimmer communicates them in his usual interesting, informative, and very readable manner.

Starting with the discovery and initial descriptions of E. coli in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Zimmer gives the reader a crash course in basic biology and genetics as he takes the reader toward our modern understanding of this organism. Zimmer then goes on to a variety of topics, from network biology to evolution, using the immediacy of contemporary topics–like the occasional deadly outbreaks of pathogenic strains of E. coli–to illustrate basic principles. He delves into the cultural wars over evolution and in the process turns the bacterial flagellum–the favorite weapon of the proponents of the scientifically-bankrupt idea of intelligent design–against these enemies of science. Zimmer ends with a thoughtful discussion on bioethics, genetic modification, and our relationship with nature. He shows how doomsday predictions of the past have failed to be realized. But, he also cautions against the unbridled enthusiasm of some scientific advocates, instead arguing for a more reasonable discussion of where we go from here.

That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, but the only way we’ll ever be able to have such a reasonable discussion about our scientific future is if all parties involved are properly informed. Advocates of the public understanding of science certainly have their work cut out for them, but at least books like Microcosm, which educate as they entertain, make the job easier.


  1. #1 Tye
    September 5, 2008

    Glad you got around to writing about this Nick, one of the more “layperson friendly” books out there about genetics, evolution, and general science principles. I agree that these types of tools make it much easier to inform the public about the happenings within the science community (and themselves biochemically speaking).

    I’ve handed my copy out to 6 people who have come away with a much clearer understanding of the working principles behind a great deal of modern science. If only we were all as adept at creating stimulating and informative literature for the populace things would be much easier. A much needed tool in the science policy workshop.

  2. #2 Monado
    September 6, 2008

    This was indeed a fascinating and accessible story; but the one that changed my attitude most was his Parasite Rex, which explains what a great effect parasites have on ecologies health, and evolution.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.