The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money
Publisher: Oxford University Press
239 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The purpose behind Money’s “The Amoeba in the Room” resonates strongly with me as a microbiologist. It should resonate with anyone who is a biologist or is interested by the varied types of life on Earth. The TV documentaries “Life” and “Planet Earth” infuriated me with their focus on animals and plants alone. The vast majority of life on Earth is ‘other’ and microbial. “The Amoeba in the Room” sets out to make this clear and detail what exactly that microbial world looks like.

I personally was interested in reading this because I was expecting a focus on the protists, eukaryotic microbes that I’m not nearly adequately familiar with. The first chapter nicely gives a tour of this eukaryotic microbe world, including the amoeba, but much of the remainder of the book covers the prokaryotes: bacteria and archaea. This isn’t a problem by any means, but for me personally, everything in the remainder of the book was well-known to me and probably will be to any microbiologist.

And that final point does get at the major concern I have with Money’s work, namely who is the audience supposed to be. Parts of the book are written with a fair amount of scientific detail (or at least jargon that goes undefined) that it would be hard reading for someone who is not trained in modern molecular biology at least. Yet the scope covers such a broad range of topics that the information given should be familiar to most scientists. I can see this working best for perhaps a well-trained biologist who happens to be in macrobiology fields. It is unfortunate that the language of the book and its style weren’t written to better serve as a general audience book for microbiology popularization. Instead, “The Amoeba in the Room” seems to exist partially in both worlds of general and technical, not being of prime use to either despite noble purpose and accurate, impassioned writing.

Three Stars out of Five

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press
224 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Other books, such as “And the Band Played On” have well-covered the story of HIV and AIDS breaking into public consciousness throughout the world in the early 1980s, its social and political effects, and the response of the medical and scientific community. Here, however, the focus is on the actual appearance of HIV in the world – long before we humans were aware of its existence. Where in Africa did HIV come from? When did it first arise to infect humans? How did it get from a virus that infects monkeys and apes to one that infects humans? I have even heard people ask, “If HIV is gotten through sex, then that means someone must have had sex with a monkey at some point!” Well, this is untrue, so if you ever thought something like this, then please please do read this book. These are the questions addressed by Crawford, and their answers have ramifications both for how AIDS seemed to suddenly spring out of nowhere into our human lives and for how we should consider future viral pandemics.

The answers to those questions take the reader through chapters that blend medicine, science, ecology, evolution, and the sociopolitical history of West-Central Africa. Unless you are already an expert on the latest scientific findings on the origin of the HIV, you will probably learn a great deal that is new. The book begins by briefly introducing and dispelling one of several misconceptions or ‘mis-informations’ about AIDS, namely the erroneous assertion that AIDS is not caused by HIV. Crawford then introduces the topic of related viruses that infect are evolutionary relatives (the simian immunodeficiency viruses or SIVs) and begins to set the stage for explaining how we know where AIDS generally comes from. She then focuses in with each chapter to address more specific matters that recent scientific experiments have brought to light, such as what kind of ape the different types of HIV variants came from, down to the specific area and people who were likely the first infected back around the early 1900s, approximately. The book concludes with a molecular discussion of HIV and how that relates to its origins and dissemination and a final discussion on the nature of viral pandemics in general, with future prospects considered.

The copy I read is an unfinished proof, and I assume misprints will be caught and changed. However, the start of the book in particular was hard to get into due to some very awkward sentence structures and several sentences that were vague or grammatically problematic. Beyond the first chapter this issue went away, and it may not even be a problem in the final product.

Crawford knows the material, and she does a fine job of distinctly conveying information that we know as scientific fact from that which leads to educated guesses or downright conjecture. However, her familiarity with the material may also be an impediment for the general reader who does not have any prior knowledge of virology or HIV. Many concepts are discussed in bits throughout the book, only being completely explained later, and many of the more scientific sections can be daunting and dry to read for a nonspecialist (such as the myriad SIV and HIV variants and subtle – though important – differences). Her writing becomes far less technical and more ‘natural’ sounding when she discusses matters outside of direct virology, such as history or anecdotes.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in HIV or those curious to learn just how a virus can go from being in a population of non-human primates for centuries, only to cross suddenly into the human population with devastating consequences decades later. If you are concerned if just such an event could happen again then there could be no better volume to read, despite its detailed technical portions.

Four Stars out of Five

Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty

19170663Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199986781
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Nobel Prize winning immunologist and veterinary surgeon Doherty writes a comprehensive and succinct review of things involving disease pandemics: what pandemics are, which have occurred, which may likely occur, and what governments and individuals are doing/can do to combat them. To form a foundation for the reader Doherty first gives a quick primer on molecular biology, viruses/bacteria, and immunology basics. He then delves into discussing the major pandemic threat of influenza before moving onto others, like HIV.

What impressed me about this volume is that it is written in a particularly laid-back fashion – almost stream-of-consciousness at points, obviously geared towards the layman with only a bit of background in microbiology. As part of Oxford University Press’ “What Everyone Needs to Know” series the book is organized as a series of question/answers to apparently aid in the comfort of this being a book for the general audience.

The downsides to the book stem from this organization, I think. Many of the questions posed are quite simple, like asking what the difference is between a virus and a bacteria. But the ‘answer’ portion goes far beyond addressing that – into myriad other topics not directly related. It therefore ends up feeling like one is reading something from a political debate, where the question is used to spring off into whatever topic or aside seems to come to mind. This ends up making portions of the book – particularly the first chapters appear rather unorganized to me.

In a few spots the scientific detail or issues raised appear to go beyond what I would deem really necessary (such as the PCR descriptions), but this was a rare occurrence. The densest scientific details can be lost on some readers without the overall important messages of the book getting lost. In the end if you are unfamiliar with what pandemics are, if you can’t explain what immunizations are and why we should get them, if you don’t know what the differences are between viruses and bacteria (and their treatments), then you should read this and learn some really essential information that is not only important for yourself but could be important for your responsibility in sharing this planet with other humans.

Four Stars out of Five