Biography of a Germ


Arno Karlen, author of Man and Microbes, focuses on a single bacterium in Biography of a Germ, giving us an intimate view of a life that has been shaped by and is in turn transforming our own.

Borrelia burgdorferi is the germ that causes Lyme disease. In existence for some hundred million years, it was discovered only recently. Exploring its evolution, its daily existence, and its journey from ticks to mice to deer to humans, Karlen lucidly ...
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Arno Karlen, author of Man and Microbes, focuses on a single bacterium in Biography of a Germ, giving us an intimate view of a life that has been shaped by and is in turn transforming our own.

Borrelia burgdorferi is the germ that causes Lyme disease. In existence for some hundred million years, it was discovered only recently. Exploring its evolution, its daily existence, and its journey from ticks to mice to deer to humans, Karlen lucidly examines the life and world of this recently prominent germ. He also describes how it attacks the human body, and how by changing the environment, people are now much more likely to come into contact with it. Charming and thorough and smart, this book is a wonderfully written biography of your not so typical biographical subject.

Disc. the ancestry & evolution of Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb); its travels through ticks, deer & humans; Lyme disease.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.|
Library Journal
The story of Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), the microorganism that causes Lyme disease, should interest a wide audience, especially in North America, where much of the narrative unfolds. Psychoanalyst Karlen has a predilection for the social history of disease (his other books include Napoleon's Glands and Other Ventures in Biohistory; Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times). Here, the author traces the social and environmental changes that might have caused the spread of Lyme disease. The early chapters are particularly well done, especially "Apologia pro vita sua," a spirited defense of the microbial world. As it is written for the general reader, the text would have benefited from additional illustrations to reinforce complicated details, such as Bb's life cycle, in the minds of readers. Suitable for all public libraries.--Leila Fernandez, Steacie Science Lib., York Univ,, Toronto Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Karlan, a psychoanalyst who has written several books on history and biomedical science, delves into the evolution and day-to-day life of Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), the germ that causes Lyme disease, from the germ's point of view. An index and some sort of reference list would have proved useful. Readers explore Bb's life cycle, its search for a host, and its relationships with these hosts, including humans. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
[An] informative and clever little book...when he gets to Bb itself, Mr. Karlen's book becomes informative and entertaining at the same time, a fine piece of popular science writing that covers the biological basics for those who do not know them but covers them stylishly enough for the more informed to gain insight, too.
The New York Times
Malcolm Farley
Arno Karlen has written a charming profile of a distinctly uncharming microorganism: Borrelia burgdorferi (or Bb), the bacterium that causes Lyme disease...Biography of a Germ is more than an elegant detour through the back roads of microbial ecology.
The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"Anro Karlen has written an elegant book that revives an old form: the biographical essay. In the spirit of Dr. Lewis Thomas, he humanizes the story of a germ while entertaining the reader with wonderfully digressive lore on history, biography, the environment, and the way humans imprint themselves on the natural landscape."
— James Atlas, author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641922961
  • Publisher: Orion Publishing Group, Limited
  • Publication date: 4/21/2008
  • Pages: 178
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Arno Karlen, Ph.D., a pschoanalyst, has written widely on history and biomedical science. He is the author of Napoleon's Glands and Other Ventures in Biohistory and Man and Microbes: Diseases and Plauges in History and Modern Times. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: A Very Small Life

To the naked eye, it is invisible, a nothing. Under the microscope, it seems a silvery corkscrew undulating on a dark field. The form has simple elegance, like the whorl of a nautilus shell or the sweep of a dragonfly wing. But that simplicity is an illusion. Through the more powerful electron microscope you see not a featureless wiggle but a shape-shifter—now a spiral, now a thread, now a rod or a sphere—with two walls, a dozen whiplike appendages and internal structures. And beyond any microscope's view, revealed only indirectly, by laboratory tests, lies a marvel of complexities. The surface bristles with molecules that sense and respond to the environment, and the interior churns like a chemical factory. Inside, more than a thousand genes flicker on and off in changing sequences, to allow survival in places as different as a tick's gut, a dog's knee and a human brain.

It is the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, by human standards a very small, brief flicker of life. Yet the boldest writer of science fiction could not invent a creature so ingenious, whose existence is entwined with that of so many other species. Although this microbe inhabits much of the earth and myriad hosts, it was not discovered until 1982, and then only because it had ignited a new epidemic, Lyme disease. That illness, so troubling to humans, is just a short, recent chapter in the germ's long history, and from its own perspective not the most important one. Borrelia burgdorferi has an ancient lineage, far older than ours, and despite all the vaccines and antibiotics we devise, it has a more promising future. It preceded people on earth andwill doubtless survive us. For that reason alone it deserves respectful biographers.

Clearly there is much drama in this little theater. But that should be no surprise, for just as every person's life, seen close up, is compelling, so is every other creature's. Borrelia burgdorferi is proof that if you want to see life afresh and be struck with awe, you need only take a germ's-eye view of the world.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Table of Contents

1 A Very Small Life 3
2 A Subject Not Picked at Random 5
3 A Brief Aside Touching the Erotic Flea 12
4 Why Bb in Particular 16
5 Apologia Pro Vita Sua: In Defense of Germs 21
6 In Some Warm Little Pond 34
7 Linnaeus's Tree 44
8 And Bb's Twig 52
9 Gaia, or Nearly Everyone's Cousin 60
10 Very Small Indeed 64
11 Not Just a Corkscrew 73
12 A Possibly Poignant Anatomy 76
13 Instead of Sex 83
14 A Fantastic Voyage 87
15 Equally Fantastic 97
16 Is the Tick Sick? 105
17 Rash Discoveries 111
18 The Magic of Names 117
19 The Annals of Myopia 121
20 From Bitterroot to Lyme 126
21 Far from Primeval 133
22 Machupo and Other Disturbances 145
23 With Apologies of Sorts 153
24 Like Darwin's Finches? 163
25 A More Hopeful Future 171
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