Book Review: Small and Packs a Punch

A Planet of Viruses
Carl Zimmer
The University of Chicago Press
109 pages

Interesting things happen when physicists decide to go into biological research. They ask questions that biologists generally won’t. For example, viruses have small genomes, but they also have very small storage space in their capsids. Bacteriophages inject their genetic material into the bacteria they infect like a combination of a lunar lander and a syringe. How much force does the coiled bacteriophage DNA have? As it turns out, bacteriophages pack quite a punch. The force required to insert the DNA into the capsid is fairly large, and requires quite a bit of ATP, stolen from the host cells by the infected virus before the cell is killed.

Carl Zimmer’s new book, A Planet of Viruses borrows its delivery technique from its subjects: in less than 100 pages, A Planet of Viruses packs quite a punch of information. The eradication of smallpox, the rise of HIV, the immigration of West Nile virus to the western hemisphere, the viruses in our genomes and the recent discovery mysteriously huge mimivirus are all treated here in delightfully short essays  describing the impact of viruses on mankind and on life in general.  To some of these topics Zimmer brings refreshing perspectives.  He proposes that the common cold virus, an unwelcome companion of man since ancient history, should be treated like a wise old tutor rather than an ancient enemy. Then he explains why we haven’t truly eradicated smallpox, and probably never will. Viruses, hovering between life and non-life have an impact on life so large it is hard to fathom. Viruses kill about half of marine microbes every day. Their sheer biomass (“…equal to [that of] 75 million blue whales”), huge host range, mind-boggling number of particles in the biosphere and, above all, the genetic diversity which is unmatched by all other life combined. They infect more than our cells: many are contained in our very genomes, transferred from generation to generation.

Having read the book in one sitting, I felt a bit lightheaded when I rose to drink my (now cold) coffee. Like compressed viral DNA injected into the host cell, the movement of this concentration of information from a small book into my brain had an almost palpable effect. As a microbiologist I knew quite a few of these stories about viruses, I just never had them put together in front of me in such a readable and concentrated fashion. Unlike larger books, which may be more elaborate on any single theme, Zimmer’s small book delivers its viral DNA in a short, sharp shock. I am happy to have been infected, and I recommend you do the same.


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