A Best Book of the YearSeed Magazine • Granta Magazine • The Plain-DealerIn this fascinating and utterly engaging book, Carl Zimmer traces E. coli's pivotal role in the history of biology, from the discovery of DNA to the latest advances in biotechnology. He reveals the many surprising and alarming parallels between E. coli's life and our own. And he describes how E. coli changes in real time, revealing billions of years of history encoded within its genome. E. coli is also the most engineered species on Earth, and as scientists retool this microbe to produce life-saving drugs and clean fuel, they are discovering just how far the definition of life can be stretched.
When most readers hear the words E. coli, they think tainted hamburger or toxic spinach. Noted science writer Zimmer says there are in fact many different strains of E. coli, some coexisting quite happily with us in our digestive tracts. These rod-shaped bacteria were among the first organisms to have their genome mapped, and today they are the toolbox of the genetic engineering industry and even of high school scientists. Zimmer (Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea) explains that by scrutinizing the bacteria's genome, scientists have discovered that genes can jump from one species to another and how virus DNA has become tightly intertwined with the genes of living creatures all the way up the tree of life to humans. Studying starving E. coli has taught us about how our own cells age. Advocates of intelligent design often produce the E. coli flagellum as Exhibit A, but the author shows how new research has shed light on the possible evolutionary arc of the flagellum. Zimmer devotes a chapter to the ethical debates surrounding genetic engineering. Written in elegant, even poetic prose, Zimmer's well-crafted exploration should be required reading for all well-educated readers.