Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer



Published by University of Chicago Press
This is popular science writing at its best: concise, edifying and not condescending. But I did not expect less from Carl Zimmer, a seasoned science writer and the author of many books (e.g. Microcosm, Soul Made Flesh, Evolution:Making Sense of Life), as well as a contributor to many high profiles newspapers and magazines (e. g. NYT, Time, Scientific American). On top of that he's a widely read blogger (The Loom).

You can tell that it is good when you would recommend the book to a non-scientist, and at the same time you find plenty in the book to enjoy for yourself.
A Planet of Viruses is a short book, so don’t expect an exhaustive treatise on viruses. But if the scope is narrow, it is due to clever choices that help keep the book focused.  For instance, Zimmer doesn’t discuss the molecular details so much. We won’t learn here about RNA vs. DNA viruses, single vs. double stranded, and so forth. Neither will we learn the elaborated tricks of viral replication or the taxonomy of viruses – but textbooks are just for that, aren’t they?


Zimmer’s choice is to write small chapters, each revolving around an examplary virus (or group of viruses). In each chapter the author blends the latest scientific discoveries with crucial historical facts, which makes for an excellent cocktail.

A Planet of Viruses starts with a brief depiction of the first discovery of a virus – the tobacco mosaic virus or TMV – by the great Dutch botanist Beijerinck. Zimmer further discusses the common cold, Influenza, HPV, Bacteriophages, Retroviruses, HIV, Ebola, Smallpox and a couple of others.

Viruses occupy a special place in the living world: they are not truly ‘alive’, but they are the most numerous biological entities on Earth and they probably played a decisive role in the evolution of life. As Zimmer notes, the oceans are for instance packed with viral particles… A fact realized only recently by the microbiologists. 

The most deadly diseases in human history are all of viral origin, which makes viruses particularly scary. Smallpox most probably killed more human beings that any other plague, before it was eradicated by the WHO campaign. But as Zimmer cleverly points out, science can now produce a smallpox from scratch (we have its nucleic acid sequence), so even if we destroyed the few remaining frozen batches of smallpox (conserved for research purposes in the US and in the former Soviet Union), a new virus could be recreated. Zimmer writes, p. 87:

“Our knowledge gives the virus its own kind of immortality.”

Nowadays smallpox is gone, but HIV is very present, as well as viruses that have the potential to become deadly killers (Ebola, SARS, avian flu). I still remember very well the fear everywhere in 2005-2006 about the bird flu. So far we have been relatively lucky, but this may change one day. (If you haven’t seen the film Contagion yet, have a look! It is pretty realistic.)

Zimmer also provides a nice selection of up-to-date literature to investigate further the world of viruses. He notably cites Corina Brussaard, whom I had the pleasure to meet a couple of years ago and who is an expert on oceanic viruses.

So, to conclude, highly recommended!

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