Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer


University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226983332, April 2011

This slim volume is an excellent and highly readable introduction to the subject of viruses for the interested layperson. Written as a series of essays for the Science Education Partnership Award, to help support outreach to students, it covers in compact form an amazing array of basic information about what viruses are, how they affect our lives for good and ill, and the important role they have played in the evolution of life.

Viruses are the smallest life form there is, and there is even dispute over whether they technically qualify as "alive," since they cannot reproduce without hijacking the reproductive capacity of fully developed cells.

Yet they are incredibly powerful and important. We're all familiar with how they make us sick, minor illnesses such as colds, or major ones such as AIDS. Less familiar to most of us is the role they do play and have played in evolution, enabling the movement of genes between individuals and between species. This happens as a result of the way viruses copy themselves using cells ranging from one-cell bacteria to the largest and most complex plants and animals. Much of the life in the ocean is viral life; some of our own genes come from viruses.

This is a fascinating little book, well worth the time you'll spend reading it.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic copy of this book directly from the publisher.