The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might say that if a microbe could talk, we couldn't understand it, but psychoanalyst and science writer Arno Karlen has done his best to listen and translate in Biography of a Germ
. This lovely, funny, even endearing portrait of Borrelia burgdorferi
(or Bb), the screwy bacterium that causes Lyme disease, would charm even a terminal mysophobe like Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, Karlen has to justify his topic at greater length than do most biographers, but his reasoning is nearly lyrical in its enthusiasm for the microscopic. Following the genealogy of the germ back to our common ancestor (gulp) and beyond, the author finds a freshness in what we too often see as dry taxonomy and genetics. From there, he watches Bb as it makes its way through the circulation superhighways of deer, ticks, and hikers, each a stop on its complex life cycle.
We elbowed our way into Bb's story comparatively recently, ironically hurting ourselves as we renewed our appreciation of and commitment to wilderness areas. As we destroyed, then created habitat for deer, we ended up inviting Bb to run amok in our bodies. Karlen captures the beauty and terror of this bizarre chain of events, providing new insights into our relationship with our environment. Much like its cousins that live harmlessly in our bloodstream, eyelashes, and guts, this tickborne germ will eventually evolve a truce with us to protect its reproduction. Unfortunately for current and future sufferers of Lyme disease, we're quite a few generations away from that happy time. While we're waiting, we can read Biography of a Germ to learn more about our new tenants and why we should care about them. --Rob Lightner
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From Publishers Weekly
The germ is Borrelia burgdorferi, Bb for short, and causes Lyme disease in the people it infects: before it hits a human, Bb has to reside in three other animalsAa mouse, a tick and a deer, in that order. This odd property, and the germ's wide distribution, means that Bb has been affected by changes in human land useAfactories, clear-cuts, the growth of the suburbs and the environmental movement all had to happen for Lyme to become something Americans think about. And think about it we do: Bb is now so interesting that in 1997 scientists mapped its genome. All these facets make Bb the ideal candidate for what Karlen (Man and Microbes, etc.) claims is the first history of a pathogen written from that pathogen's perspective. Fascinating in their own right, Bb and its relatives also demonstrate larger patterns and questions in the study and history of microbes and molecular biology, of zoology and ecology, of medicine, public health policy and disease. In 22 brief chapters, Karlen lays out and answers some of those questions. He tells of Bb's sibling spirochetes, which cause syphilis and tropical diseases. He explains how ticks' adaptations let them parasitize "a chipmunk or a human," "a wren or a raccoon," and how Bb's adaptations let it jump between ticks and their hosts. Karlen has created a vigorous, compact account of Bb's life and times. And beyond the zoology and disease control, Karlen even offers a message: "Pathogens... are just trying to survive, and sometimes they must do so at other creatures' expense." The same could be said of humans." (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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