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Biography of a Germ [Paperback]

Arno Karlen
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 15 2001
Arno Karlen, author of Man and Microbes, focuses on a single bacterium in Biography of a Germ, giving us an intimate view of a life that has been shaped by and is in turn transforming our own.

Borrelia burgdorferi is the germ that causes Lyme disease. In existence for some hundred million years, it was discovered only recently. Exploring its evolution, its daily existence, and its journey from ticks to mice to deer to humans, Karlen lucidly examines the life and world of this recently prominent germ. He also describes how it attacks the human body, and how by changing the environment, people are now much more likely to come into contact with it. Charming and thorough and smart, this book is a wonderfully written biography of your not so typical biographical subject.

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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Microbiology as literature Dec 7 2000
Format:Hardcover
The germ is the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and it causes among other things Lyme disease. Karlen is a psychoanalyst by trade and a historian of microbiology by inclination. He fell in love with the world of the very small when as a boy he was given a microscope. Karlen is also a fine prose stylist with a sharp sense of the ecological. In fact this book is really a kind of treatise on ecology, with a concentration on the environment of a bacterium. Borrelia burgdorferi is spread by ticks that bite small animals such as mice and squirrels and larger animals such as deer and sometimes humans. What Karlen accomplishes in this modest little book is to make vivid just what a "germ" is for a general readership. If you are in a fog about microbes and would like a painless, lively introduction, then this book may serve you very well.
I always imagined that bacteria split about every twenty minutes. Here I learned that some bacteria do split every twenty minutes or so, but others take hours and some even longer. I was also fuzzy about just how it is that microbes cause disease. Do they "eat" human flesh or destroy our cells with toxins or hog our nutrients for themselves? Turns out that some do one thing and some do another. Karlen emphasizes that sometimes what they do is cause symptoms: fever, muscle aches, fatigue, inflamation, etc., which are actually the result of our immune system's aggressive response to the presence of something foreign. Sometimes this can get so out of hand that our immune system continues to attack our own cells even after the microbe is gone, as is suspected in rheumatoid arthritis and possibly fibromyalgia (p. 160).
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4.0 out of 5 stars Laughter and learning makes quite the Bbook Dec 12 2001
Format:Paperback
Okay, so I must admit... I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to understanding the scientific jargon used in most journals discussing epidemiology and other areas of interest. I love to read about the world around me, but sometimes need a translator to comprehend it all! That's the great thing about Arno Karlen's book, "Biography of a Germ"-- you don't have to have your doctorate in microbacteriology to enjoy this book as a great read. On the surface the subject may seem a bit, well, odd... but Karlen's wit makes it easy to find yourself enthralled with the life and loves of Bb, this book's microscopic hero and hellion all rolled into one tiny spirochete. Before you know it, you are actually LEARNING a thing or two... and enjoying every minute of it! Far beyond just a crack at popular science, "Biography of a Germ" just might provide a few answers not only about the world within but the world around.
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1.0 out of 5 stars This Could Have Been SO Much Better Aug. 2 2000
Format:Hardcover
When I purchased this book I expected it would be life from a particular bacteria's perspective. By this I mean, "Well, today our host started a new antibacterial therapy. The last round of therapy was tough, but we managed to make it through unscathed. I'm confident we'll survive." Unfortunately, what I read was a scientific book written in non-scientific language. As a biology major in college and a medical student now, I've read many scientific books written in scientific language. So many that they are pretty much all I can relate to anymore. HA! Actually, that statement has more truth in it than I care to admit, but I thought this book would be a nice change of pace. Instead, it's a listing of information about a certain bacterial species that I could have extracted from Bergey's. The book is undramatic and uninteresting. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but superficial March 29 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is undoubtly an interesting subject. Borrelia burgdorferi is an important pathogen and serve as a good model to explain some ways in which we have altered the environment and the resulting ecological consequences. Ecology and microbiology as the ecology of parasites in general are extremely important subjects we should all be conscientious and aware of. Particularly interesting is the ecological history of Borrelia burgdorferi and his vector.
The reason I only gave three stars to this book is that I felt it is superficial. Arno Karlen does not explain intimate relations between Borrelia and Ioxodes, nor between Ioxodes and deer, he just mentions the relations between them, but do not explain intimacies.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable look at a small subject Oct. 5 2002
Format:Paperback
Sometimes it's the simple books that help cut down the clutter and look at something in a manageable way. So often books about disease or germs become large dense tomes. Karlen has taken the time to look at a single germ, the one responsible for Lyme Disease, and looks at its past, present and potential future. Along the way he teaches you Biology 101 about germs in a simple and enjoyable manner. A simple book with a simple purpose, but one that shows us an aspect of the world around us we may not have thought about.
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