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Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life

4.14 of 5 stars 4.14  ·  rating details  ·  811 ratings  ·  78 reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 272 pages
Published May 6th 2008 by Vintage (first published January 1st 2008)
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I just got this book for Christmas and polished it off in a couple of days. I'm not sure that I'm really the typical reader in this case, as I work in the biological sciences and have done some work with E. coli (it's hard to do molecular work these days without it). So comparatively few of the actual facts were new to me. What were new, and what really kept me enthralled, were the experiments that established those facts, the fundamentals of not only microbiology, but genetics, and evolution.

Michael Connolly

Escherichia coli bacteria was discovered by the German-Austrian pediatrician Theodor Escherich. He found it in baby diapers.

Beneficial Bacteria

E. coli inhabit the human colon and most strains of E. coli are beneficial, not pathogens. In fact, most of the bacteria in your colon are non-pathogenic. When you take antibiotics to kill pathogenic bacteria, the antibiotics often also kill friendly bacteria, resulting in diarrhea.


E. coli bacteria in the intestines neutralize acid by

Roy Klein
This is the second book I've read by Carl Zimmer, and so far he's consistently captivating, mind provoking and thorough. I'm a fan of popular science, and I'm surprised how unfamiliar Zimmer seems to be in the field. I haven't seen book stores carring his books, or his name mentioned in lists, among the likes of Simon Singh. That's a shame, because his work deserves much more recognition than it gets.

I'm a product of a fairly shallow educational system that did almost nothing to teach me biolog
With the trained eyes of a scientist and the soul of poet, eminent science writer Carl Zimmer takes us on an all too brief, yet fascinating, trek into contemporary biology, as seen from the perspective of the bacterium Escherichia coli, in his latest book, "Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life". More than a mere recounting of decades of elegant scientific research from the likes of Joshua Lederberg and Salvador Luria, among others, "Microcosm" is truly a book about contemporary biology ...more
Nov 03, 2008 Jessie rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
It is easy, when reading a book that's about your particular field of intense interest, to close the last page with mixed feelings. Sometimes the books are so in depth that you feel sorry for any poor soul who happened to meander into them. Other times, you can't help but quibble about what was put into (or perhaps left out). So I think I can say it was with rare pleasure that I closed this book with a big goofy grin on my face.

I'm a microbiologist-in-training, and to start out with, it's rare t
Feb 17, 2009 Eric_W marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Referenced in an article by Zimmer in BBC Knowledge magazine about Richard's Lenski's work with E.coli bacteria. He set up 12 identical lines in separate flasks 21 years ago and then watched them evolve. Some really interesting stuff happened including one line's ability to use citrate for sustenance something E. coli could not do. His work is giving the creationists fits because it's living proof of the mechanism of evolution and natural selection.

Full article in Mar/Apr 2009 issue of BBC Know
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Melody Rudenko
Could finish before it was due back. First half is really good.
I finished! Summer reading is complete.
Li'l Vishnu
This book has some very fun things to say about natural selection and the movement of genes across species. Particularly the stories about viruses and DNA.

Incidentally, I have a hard time with figures like virus spreading genes "4 quadrillion times each second" beneath the ocean. And estimating the beginnings of life and so on. Astronomic numbers get thrown around so casually that they really lose their meaning. That part of it comes off vague and fuzzy.

The narrative was really formulaic as well
E. coli is a bacterium, a member of the domain of life whose most recent common ancestor with us eukaryotes lived perhaps 3 billion years ago. It shares most, though not all, biochemical mechanisms with the rest of Earth life (as Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod put it, what is true of E. coli is true of the elephant), but it is quite simple, with 4000 genes to our 30000, so it has served as a model organism for 20th- and 21st-century biology. Biologists have used E. coli to prove tha ...more
I'm a big fan of Carl Zimmer. His blog, The Loom ( ) is always great for keeping up with scientific developments in words that a layperson can understand, and his other books (I've read Parasite Rex, At the Water's Edge , and Soul Made Flesh ) have been quite good. His newest book, on the bacterium E. coli, was also an enjoyable and educational read.

I find I get the most out of science writing when it's on a subject outside my expertise. I loved Parasite Rex f
Harry Rutherford
The bacteria Escherichia coli is best known for occasionally causing food poisoning outbreaks, but most strains of it are harmless and indeed a normal part of our gut flora. It's also one of the most-studied life forms on earth because, like fruit flies and white mice, they are used as a standard laboratory research subject. So Zimmer has been able to use E. coli as a way of looking at a whole range of related topics: evolution, cell biology, genetic engineering and so forth.

As I would expect fr
Aug 14, 2008 Junx rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with even a passing interest in the basic questions of life.
Recommended to Junx by:
My introduction to this book was via the Scienceblogs book club. They talked about it at length and I found the discussion incredibly interesting. Particularly the discussion on Richard Lenski's publishing of his research whereby he observed E. coli evolve the ability to consume the citrate medium they found themselves in.

The fact that E. coli lives within us, and almost no one takes notice is an amazing fact in and of itself. Though it can be (and is) argued that we would not be here were it no
My review for the Sunday Times is now up on their site. Here's how it begins

"If you are interested in how living things work down at the cellular level, then this is a good time to be alive. It is not, however, an equally good time to be reading popular-science books. While evolution gets a lot of ink devoted to it, in part because it is fascinating and in part because some people, absurdly, continue to see it as problematic, the molecular processes that evolution shapes go comparatively unsung.
Katie/Doing Dewey
Microcosm is a history of E. coli but more than that, it’s a history of modern biology. So much of what we do in the lab today depends on these little bacteria that looking at biology through the lens of E. coli lends itself well to discussing almost all of modern microbiology. It also includes a few philosophical musings and, at the other end of the spectrum, some practical insight into the job of a microbiologist.

I picked up Microcosm in part because the description compares the book to Lives

Carl Zimmer is one of my favorite science writers, precisely because I know how difficult it is to walk the fine line between explaining the intricacies of science and not overwhelming readers with abstruse detail. In general, Zimmer does a fine job of this in Microcosm, in which he explores just how important the humble, ubiquitous bacterium E. Coli has been in everything from understanding how evolution works to how diverse life is to how to produce valuable drugs through genetic engineering.

Simply and beautifully written. Author does a great job depicting life on Earth not as a static collection of species, beings and creatures but as ever-changing force of nature in dynamic world where wonderful things are possible and indeed happen all the time. This is an wonderful insight on how tree of life was built has come into existence and also what possibly awaits us in future.
Todd Martin
E. coli is a rod-shaped bacterium that, if you take a look, you’ll find in your lower intestines, as will every other warm-blooded mammal. It’s been widely studied and this intensive scrutiny has led to significant scientific discoveries in the fields of genetics, medicine, microbiology and biotechnology. Though it’s probably most commonly associated with fecal-borne illness, most strains are harmless.

In Microcosm, Carl Zimmer explores both the function of E. coli and its prodigious role in scie
Alan Morris
Excellent book covering a lot of cell biology and genetics that I haven't learned much about since high school. I had no idea the extent to which genetically modified E. Coli are in use today (such as in the production of drugs and insulin).

Interesting throughout, not too long and not too short, I never felt that it was dragging on.
Pam Porter
Excellent discussion of the history of E. coli and its importance in the last century of biomedical research. Carl Zimmer does a wonderful job of explaining the evolution of thought in the minds of scientists over controversial topics like genetic engineering, antibiotic resistance, GMOs and extraterrestrial life.
Andrej Karpathy
This is a good exploration of E. coli bacteria / associated topics for a layman, and a pleasant read overall. The book begins with a brief description of historical context under which E. coli bacteria was discovered, but quickly transitions to describe the life of E. coli. An amazing picture of a complicated and intricate molecular machine emerges. The book goes on to describe populations of E. coli, their chemical warfare/symbiosis, different strains, genetics, and (inevitably) evolution. It f ...more
An outstanding book, highly recommended. I loved his Parasite Rex years ago and this is much better than that book -- or at least than my memory of that book. It is an intensive look at E. coli, everything from the details of how we have learned about it, how it functions, how it has evolved, what we understand about it genetics, the role it plays in normal human functioning and human disease, how it is being used to produce new proteins and provide the basis for synthetic life.

All along the way
Yusef Vazirabad
Although the book is slightly dated as of this writing (2008), Zimmer has quite a way with words. His prose is excellent and keeps everything simple for non-scientists. As a student of the biological sciences, at times he glossed over experimental details that I had to know of due to curiosity, but that is due to my background and is not a fault of the author.

Even so, I never fully understood the mechanism of how artificial selection pressure causes hyper-mutation in bacteria, and Zimmer eloquen
A look at life, evolution and death from the point of view of the common gut bateria, e. coli. The natural history of this surprisingly complicated little survivor is sketched, from its beginnings billions of years ago to its central role in today's brave new world of biotechnology. Along the way, Zimmer treats the reader to lessons on how living things adapt to survive and compete with each other, how much all forms of life have in common, the fuzzy line between living and non-living, and some ...more
Oct 15, 2008 Arlene rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: inquisitive, intelligent readers
This book can be read on two levels. It is almost a primer on cellular and molecular biology; and if you wade through all the details you will come away with a lot of knowledge on the subject. For those not so scientifically minded there is still a great deal to be learned from this book. The interrelatedness of all life on earth, being the main point here. The author also fleshes out a great argument to use against those who would still deny evolution and embrace creationism.

I found it at time
Jarl Olsen
Possibly even geekier than "Parasite Rex". A whole book devoted to one ubiquitous microorganism. If the title grabs you, and it shouldn't if you are at all normal, then you will enjoy it.
This book was a disappointment for me. I found it to be filled with poorly described science and bad analogies. For example, "... a University of Alabama microbiologist created a superfeeble strain that was a hundred million times weaker than K-12" is a meaningless sentence with no definition of "weak", or comparisons of cell pathways to the internet that, in my opinion, makes no sense and serves no purpose. The author appears to not really understand the science all that well.

I don't exactly r
Aug 04, 2009 Jennifer rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: inquiring minds.
Recommended to Jennifer by: Dr. Janet.
Shelves: 2009

I found out about Carl Zimmer from his collection of Science Tattoos. I began following his blog, The Loom, and found his writing to be interesting and very readable. A colleague of mine and I started talking about him (she had recently gotten a science tattoo!) and she highly recommended Microcosm.

A short summary would be either how E. coli changed the world, or it could be how the world changed E. coli. Science, research, disease, ethics, possibilities, consequences, history, space,
A discussion on the history and contributions of E. Coli. The history is two fold: one the one part is its evolution (including the cross strain and cross species genetic contributions) and the second part is thoat of its discovery, its study, and its use in the study of genetics. I always knew E. Coli was a lot more complicated than its ourward appearance, but this book shed light on a lot of aspects. It does digress some (like the discussion of entropy is not necessary) and some places it seem ...more
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Carl Zimmer is an award-winning science writer. He is a columnist for the New York Times and is the author of several books, including Parasite Rex, Soul Made Flesh, and A Planet of Viruses.
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