Microbiology: Four References and a Fiction

I recently had a post on Small Things Considered, a blog from The American Society for Microbiology that combined reviews of four recent nonfiction books that I’ve read, and one fiction, featuring microbiology. Many of these could be of interest even to general readers with scientific curiosity.

6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c774ece8970b-800wiConfronting Contagion: Our Evolving Understanding of Disease
By Melvin Santer
Oxford University Press – 2nd October 2014
ISBN 9780199356355 – 384 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


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To Catch a Virus
By John Booss and Marilyn J. August
ASM Press – 25th March 2013
ISBN 9781555815073 – 364 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


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Scientific Integrity, 4th Edition
By Francis L. Macrina
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555816612 – 530 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Principles of Microbial Diversity
By James W. Brown
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555814427 – 416 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Petroplague
By Amy Rogers
AuthorHouse – 27th October 2011
ISBN 9781467038270 – 336 Pages – Paperback
Source: Author, via Small Things Considered


You can find short reviews on all of the above in my original post found here on Small Things Considered.

Disclaimer: I received advanced reading copies of these books from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews.

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
AISN: B00CXOU16Y
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