New release book review: AMOEBA IN THE ROOM by Nicholas P. Money

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Amoeba in the Room by Nicholas P. Money

Publication date: March 23, 2014
Category: Microbiology nonfiction, popular science (or at least, not textbook microbiology)
BlueStar4
Tech rating (out of 5):

Biohazard5

Summary (from the publisher):

A cup of seawater contains 100 million cells, which are preyed upon by billions of viruses. Fifty million tons of fungal spores are released into the atmosphere every year. And the human gut is home to somewhere between 500 and 1,000 species of bacteria. The more we learn about microbial biodiversity, the clearer it becomes that the vast majority of life has long gone unseen, and unobserved. The flowering of microbial science is revolutionizing biology and medicine in ways unimagined only a few years ago, and is inspiring a new view of what it means to be alive.

In The Amoeba in the Room, Nicholas Money explores the extraordinary breadth of the microbial world and the vast swathes of biological diversity that can be detected only using molecular methods. Although biologists have achieved a remarkable level of understanding about the way multicellular organisms operate, Money shows that most people continue to ignore the fact that most of life isn’t classified as either plant or animal. Significant discoveries about the composition of the biosphere are making it clear that the sciences have failed to comprehend the full spectrum of life on earth, which is far more diverse than previously imagined. Money’s engaging work considers this diversity in all its forms, exploring environments from the backyard pond to the ocean floor to the “mobile ecosystem” of our own bodies.

A revitalized vision of life emerges from Money’s lively narrative of the lowly, one in which we are challenged to reconsider our existence in proper relationship to the single-celled protists, bacteria, and viruses that constitute most of life on earth. Proposing a radical reformulation of biology education and research in the life sciences, The Amoeba in the Room is a compelling romp through the least visible and yet most prodigiously magnificent aspects of life on earth.

ScienceThrillers Review:

In order to evaluate The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, it’s critical to first define the book’s audience.

Here’s a useful indicator: tell me, what is a eukaryote? A prokaryote?

If you have no idea, this book is NOT for you. Move along.

Like many of the microorganisms it describes, Amoeba in the Room occupies a small, specialized niche. It is neither popular science with broad appeal, nor is it a textbook of microbiology. The book begins with a sort of pastoral musing by a microbiologist contemplating the exotic, invisible life in his Ohio backyard pond. Over the pages the author takes us on a global tour of the microbes, highlighting the incomparably strange and amazing features that are commonplace and ordinary among very small forms of life. He structures this journey by environment, from pond, to ocean, soil, fresh water, air, the insides of humans, and extreme environments, selecting a few striking microbes to highlight in each place while emphasizing the incomprehensible diversity and complexity of each ecosystem.

But Amoeba in the Room is both much less and much more than an inventory of remarkable microbes. (Dr. Money makes clear how foolhardy such an endeavor would be.) This book has a consistent message that culminates in the end with a call to arms. Money’s goal is to change the reader’s way of seeing the world, and especially to change the way we teach (and study) biology. One microbe at a time in the text, he gradually succeeds.

The tone is folksy and conversational but the content is intended for people who are fairly knowledgeable about biology in general and microbiology in particular. The author is trying to reach teachers of science, to open their eyes to the fact that biology education is stuck in the 19th or even 18th century with its emphasis on the life that we can see, even though every plant and animal in our daily experience is, in fact, trivial to the biosphere as a whole. Life on earth is overwhelmingly microbial by any standard: the most diverse; the most numerous; the most massive; the most widespread; and the most important for regulating the cycling of nutrients, the composition of the atmosphere, the pH of the oceans, the viability of the planet itself.

Money makes an excellent case for a dramatic re-evaluation of taxonomy. The classification of life into kingdoms Prokaryotes, Eukaryotes, and the “new” Archaea, with the eukaryotes grouped as animals, plants, fungi, and protists, in the author’s words, “hasn’t been a serious reading of the facts for a long time, but it has shown remarkably tenacity.” He mentions the eight “supergroups” of eukarya, which were new to me, and clearly have not been adopted by the educational establishment.

Amoeba in the Room grew on me. I found myself reading a few pages every night, never arrested by the narrative, but always curious to read a little more. By the time I reached the end, the author had succeeded in making a rather profound and permanent change in my world view.

If you are involved in biology education at any level, including elementary school, I recommend you read this book. Like the microbes themselves, Amoeba in the Room is easily overlooked but carries an important message.

Just to share more about the flavor and perspective of the book, I’m going to share some of the many passages I highlighted and which continue to affect my thoughts.

{Some factual tidbits are definitely worth sharing; for example, who that knew diatoms have sex? Or that most of the planet’s genetic information is not found in living cells at all, but in viruses? That the tiny amoeba proteus has a genome one hundred times bigger than ours?}

“Once we turn to the microscopic organisms, the definition of a species becomes more a philosophical question than a scientific one. For bacteria and archaea, especially, the species view of life is almost meaningless.”

(by moving genes around) “Viruses sabotage the tree of life envisioned by Darwin in which steady modification leads to the proliferation of new branches and the demise of older ones, creating an ordered pattern of vertical evolutionary descent.”

“There is a uniformity to all plants which is impossible to appreciate at first glance. The range of leaf shapes and sizes and the brilliance of floral forms are powerful distractions from the fact that all plants work in the seem way and add no more than a splotch to the astonishing breadth of biological diversity when viewed in relation to the supergroup arrangement of life.”

“It’s just as difficult to figure out what’s living in the dirt and how they’re doing it as it is to unravel the biology of the open ocean archaea…The species that prosper on agar represent less than 0.5 percent of the life in the soil; most microbes have thirsts that we have failed to slake in the laboratory.”

“During my lifetime we have learned that a far greater repository of biological diversity exists among the unicellular organisms and the viruses than we find throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. Yet, even in the twenty-first century the majority of professional scientists are preoccupied with macrobiology. This is a problem.”

“Ecosystems, like individual animals, don’t work very well without microbes…Ecology cannot be taught any more without considering the importance of microorganisms.”

“We carry microbes around and feed them; they deliver the power that allows us to do so…Microbial ecology should stimulate a feeling of uneasiness about the meaning of our species and the importance of the individual.”

“By adding microbes to the public discourse we may get closer to comprehending the real workings of the biosphere and the growing threat to their perpetuation…If extinction is the thing we are trying to forestall, we would be better placed in trying to save habitats.”

Other unusual words or concepts in the book: enterotypes; panspermia; melanized fungi at Chernobyl; flow cytometer; heterotroph; osmotic balance; DNA library; strict anaerobe; genome; rhizosphere; grex

*****

If you like Amoeba in the Room, you might like:
microbiology science thriller Petroplague by Amy Rogers; Bad Science by Ben Goldacre; Deadly Outbreaks by Alexandra Leavitt; Flu by Gina Kolata; The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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One Response to New release book review: AMOEBA IN THE ROOM by Nicholas P. Money

  1. Pingback: New interactive microbiome exhibit at AMNH in NY | ScienceThrillers.com

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