Biography of a Germ (Pantheon Books/May 30, 2000/$22) by Arno Karlen is the first book about the fascinating and dangerous bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Karlen tells the amazing life story of borellia burgdorferi–called Bb for short–the spiral bacterium behind Lyme disease, yet unlike any previous books about microbes in general, he tells the story from the germ's point of view.
Karlen takes the reader on voyage through the germ's life cycle, a trip more ingenious than any science fiction. Bb has been around for hundreds of millions of years, and will, Karlen informs us, outlive the human species. For Bb, life is esentially the endless search for a home, or host. Bb's relationship with its hosts are so specialized that it must first reside in three different creatures–deer tick, mouse, and deer–only in that order, befiore it enters a human.
In Biology of a Germ, Karlen describes in vivid detail the life and times of Bb's favorite host, the deer tick. From the tick's eating and growth patterns ("blood meals") and sexual behavior (both disgusting and fascinating, we learn) to their mobility problems ("no wings, cannot jump, and walks like a nonagenarian"), and how they solve those dilemmas, Karlen reveals a creature of astounding tenacity and adaptability.
Karlen relates two milestones in the germ's history–the discovery of Lyme disease in 1977 and of Bb itself in 1982 by Swiss scientist Billy Burgdorfer. He continues to show how Bb and humans, which coexisted for millions of years on earth without meeting, became entangled. It ocurred, Karlen explains, because people changed their habits, technology and use of land, transforming their environment. Consequently, Bb now thrives worldwide from Lyme, CT to Europe, China, and Austrailia, in hundreds of species.
Karlen has written a number of books on history and science in the past. With his latest, he gives us a winning combination of great science writing and a truly etertaining narrative.
About the Author:
Arno Karlen, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst, has written widely on history and biomedical science. He is the author of Napolean's Glands and Other Ventures in Biohistory and Man and Microbes: Diseases and Plagues in History and Modern Times. He lives in New York City.
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 animals--a 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 use--factories, 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 Cahners Business Information.|