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Biography of a germ

For all that it is entitled the 'biography of a germ', the story of Borrelia burgdorferi is as much the story of two mothers who campaigned for their childrens' ailments to be taken seriously and of the scientist who linked their mysterious disease to a previously-unknown microbe. These accounts deserve to be told, the microbiologist and highly-respected editor Bernard Dixon has pointed out, as a cautionary tale to those in the medical community who often dismiss the concerns of lay people as ill-founded "nonscience" [1]. These peoples' stories could form a natural starting place for a book like this, providing a context and a narrative thread through what is, essentially, a scientific detective story.

Curiously, the key human protagonists don't appear until Chapter 17 - and the bacterium itself is hardly mentioned until Chapter 10. Instead we're treated at first to a brief account of what microbes are, the germ theory of disease, the Linnaean system of classification, the Gaia theory and "a touching aside on the erotic flea". These chapters (over a third of the book) place the 'biography' in a historical, scientific and literary setting, although much of the content of the first 10 chapters will be familiar to those with a modicum of biological knowledge. Fortunately, a little new material finds its way in too, including a mention of the mapping of the bacterium's genome (completed in 1997) and brief details of the outer surface proteins, which allow the bacterium to dodge its hosts' immune systems.

The book has a decidedly American slant; 'here' usually means the USA. References such as that to "Rube Goldberg inventions" (the US cartoonist whose work is often compared to that of W. Heath Robinson in Britain) will be lost on many non-US readers. Despite the presence of Lyme disease on several continents, the vector species and bacterial strains referred to are almost exclusively from the area around Connecticut, where the disease was first identified. The author is aware of this bias and makes his apologies. The advantage of such a limited approach is that the book is relatively succinct and importantly, that the life of B. burgdorferi can be set in an ecological and to some extent, a social, context.

Lyme disease is, arguably, greatly over-diagnosed in the USA. The recognition of the condition in the late 1970s and the identification in 1985 of B. burgdorferi as its cause, triggered public alarm and spawned numerous self-help guides for those who were, or thought they might be, afflicted. This simple tale of the bacterium's life set in a broader perspective, is a valuable accompaniment to those books for the lay reader. It can be read comfortably in a single afternoon.

Note that although the author, Arno Karlen, has won the Rhône-Poulenc Science Book Prize for one of his other works, it was not awarded for this book. The text on the cover of this paperback edition could therefore be misleading.

Dean Madden
National Centre for Biotechnology Education
The University of Reading Whiteknights
PO Box 226
Reading RG6 6AP
The United Kingdom

1. Power unseen. How microbes rule the world by Bernard Dixon (1996) W.H. Freeman and Stockton Press, London. ISBN: 071674550X. [Currently out-of-print]

Sidansvarig: Sven Toresson|Sidan uppdaterades: 2016-07-13

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