Cover image for Biography of a germ
Biography of a germ
Karlen, Arno.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
vi, 178 pages ; 20 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QR201.L88 K37 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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This is high drama played out on a very small stage: a microbe's life seen from its own point of view. The bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb for short) is a tiny, pale spiral, invisible to the naked eye, yet no one could invent a life so ingenious, or one so tied to so many creatures' fates. We know Bb as the germ that causes Lyme disease, but that is just one recent chapter in its age-old struggle to survive. In this brilliant and original book, Arno Karlen takes readers on a fantastic journey through Bb's world--its ancestry and evolution, its day-to-day life, its perilous travels through ticks, mice, and deer, and, finally, its collision with humanity. Its life evokes the vast ecological web in which we and Bb are threads. Bb is of special interest because it is one of a score of microbes that recently shifted to humans from other species, causing such epidemics as Lyme disease and AIDS. Like its microbial brethren, Bb entered our bodies because we invited it to, by changing our environment and behavior. Its history shows how germs, their hosts, and their shared environment all shape one another. But Bb is fascinating in its own right, a distinctive member of bacteria's invisible kingdom. And its story is an homage to the researchers who discovered it, mapped its genes, and continue to explore it. Imaginative, entertaining, and compelling, Biography of a Germ makes science pure pleasure.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 animalsÄa 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 useÄfactories, 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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The story of Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), the microorganism that causes Lyme disease, should interest a wide audience, especially in North America, where much of the narrative unfolds. Psychoanalyst Karlen has a predilection for the social history of disease (his other books include Napoleon's Glands and Other Ventures in Biohistory; Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times). Here, the author traces the social and environmental changes that might have caused the spread of Lyme disease. The early chapters are particularly well done, especially "Apologia pro vita sua," a spirited defense of the microbial world. As it is written for the general reader, the text would have benefited from additional illustrations to reinforce complicated details, such as Bb's life cycle, in the minds of readers. Suitable for all public libraries.DLeila Fernandez, Steacie Science Lib., York Univ,, Toronto (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One: A Very Small Life To the naked eye, it is invisible, a nothing. Under the microscope, it seems a silvery corkscrew undulating on a dark field. The form has simple elegance, like the whorl of a nautilus shell or the sweep of a dragonfly wing. But that simplicity is an illusion. Through the more powerful electron microscope you see not a featureless wiggle but a shape-shifter -- now a spiral, now a thread, now a rod or a sphere -- with two walls, a dozen whiplike appendages and internal structures. And beyond any microscope's view, revealed only indirectly, by laboratory tests, lies a marvel of complexities. The surface bristles with molecules that sense and respond to the environment, and the interior churns like a chemical factory. Inside, more than a thousand genes flicker on and off in changing sequences, to allow survival in places as different as a tick's gut, a dog's knee and a human brain. It is the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi , by human standards a very small, brief flicker of life. Yet the boldest writer of science fiction could not invent a creature so ingenious, whose existence is entwined with that of so many other species. Although this microbe inhabits much of the earth and myriad hosts, it was not discovered until 1982, and then only because it had ignited a new epidemic, Lyme disease. That illness, so troubling to humans, is just a short, recent chapter in the germ's long history, and from its own perspective not the most important one. Borrelia burgdorferi has an ancient lineage, far older than ours, and despite all the vaccines and antibiotics we devise, it has a more promising future. It preceded people on earth and will doubtless survive us. For that reason alone it deserves respectful biographers. Clearly there is much drama in this little theater. But that should be no surprise, for just as every person's life, seen close up, is compelling, so is every other creature's. Borrelia burgdorferi is proof that if you want to see life afresh and be struck with awe, you need only take a germ's-eye view of the world. Excerpted from Biography of a Germ by Arno Karlen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 A Very Small Lifep. 3
2 A Subject Not Picked at Randomp. 5
3 A Brief Aside Touching the Erotic Fleap. 12
4 Why Bb in Particularp. 16
5 Apologia Pro Vita Sua: In Defense of Germsp. 21
6 In Some Warm Little Pondp. 34
7 Linnaeus's Treep. 44
8 And Bb's Twigp. 52
9 Gaia, or Nearly Everyone's Cousinp. 60
10 Very Small Indeedp. 64
11 Not Just a Corkscrewp. 73
12 A Possibly Poignant Anatomyp. 76
13 Instead of Sexp. 83
14 A Fantastic Voyagep. 87
15 Equally Fantasticp. 97
16 Is the Tick Sick?p. 105
17 Rash Discoveriesp. 111
18 The Magic of Namesp. 117
19 The Annals of Myopiap. 121
20 From Bitterroot to Lymep. 126
21 Far from Primevalp. 133
22 Machupo and Other Disturbancesp. 145
23 With Apologies of Sortsp. 153
24 Like Darwin's Finches?p. 163
25 A More Hopeful Futurep. 171