Planet Of Viruses

I just finished reading Carl Zimmer’s newest book, A Planet of Viruses.  When the book arrived and I realized its viral stature (a mere 94 pages containing 4 sections with 12 chapters and images) I was a bit saddened.  Having previously read Microcosm, on the biology gleaned from the science of studying E. coli, I was primed to delve into the practice of virology and didn’t think 94 pages could deliver the fix I desired. 

Well, having read the book, I still can’t say that it did.  But is wasn’t a waste of time either.  Here are a few thoughts…

  • Each chapter informs about a particular virus or group of viruses and is written with an expected passion for the history and science.  The chapters are a bit too succinct though.  You get drawn in to the story that is being told only for it to finish too soon.  In fact, the chapters average just over 6 pages in length (some 76 written pages in total).  Each chapter is a wonderful stand-alone story that shares specific researched insights that could inform any class discussion of the world of viruses, and may make a good introduction for students and lay people alike. 
  • The book has a more general trajectory as well, progressing from our initial awareness of viruses (via Tobacco Mosaic Virus), through old companions (Rhinovirus, Influenza Virus, and Human Papillomavirus) and their ubiquity (Bacteriophages, Marine Phages, and Endogenous Retroviruses), to more recent epidemics and issues of eradication (HIV, West Nile Virus, SARS and Ebola, and Smallpox).  The layout fully supports the title’s claim, and Zimmer presents an apprecaited and new perspective on the viruses as a necessary and integral part of the living world.

I took some time looking around for some more literary reviews of the book to share (NY Times, etc…), but I couldn’t find much more than book sellers and other useless links.  Here the few that I found…

The book was born from a more general project led by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln called the World of Viruses.  This site is still in development but appears to have the goal of supporting some curricular materials on viruses in the future.

In summary, I enjoyed and learned enough from Carl’s new book to make it a worth while read, although I expected much more.

Energizing Evolution

it, as well as our understanding of it, just keeps going and growing and going…

During the holiday break, I have come across a number of valuable resources (video, audio, and paper) for demonstrating to students that the processes of natural selection and speciation, that Darwin made us aware of 150 years ago this past year, are actually occuring before our very eyes.  

Instead of hypothetical just-so-stories, these resources are user friendly and thought provoking real world examples with organisms and adaptations that students can relate to.  These examples also highlight the work of the people, and the personalities, behind the acquisition of new scientific knowledge.  I commend these scientists and numerous others who understand the importance of communicating science to a sometimes skeptical public and whose efforts have provided us with these wonderful resources and springboards for learning.


Read on to find out about these 7 resources…

Continue reading “Energizing Evolution”

Facebook and Frameshift

I don’t know about you, but I timidly joined facebook last fall to begin my journey in learning how this social networking resource might be of use both personally and professionally.  

Happily, I have discovered that there are educational relevant uses for facebook!  I will write a extended blog post on how I use it with students in the near future but today I read something on my facebook home page that I thought I should pass along.

As a member of facebook, one can join groups and follow updates on other people’s pages.  Some of these people happen to be practicing scientists or others on the periphery of the science community.  One individual I happen to follow is Carl Zimmer.  Most of you are familiar with Carl’s collection of quality books.   If you aren’t a member of facebook, you can follow his blog via his website (which links to the Discover’s blogsite – my how connected things are – if you have your own website you can add it with an RSS feed – maybe KABT should consider this).  

Well, the cool thing about reading Carl’s blog is that you are kept up-to-date on his insights into the active world of science, and don’t have to wait a year or two for such insights to be integrated into his next book.


In one of his posts from yesterday, Losing Teeth, but Keeping Genes, he reviews a recently published article Molecular Decay of the Tooth Gene Enamelin (ENAM) Mirrors the Loss of Enamel in the Fossil Record of Placental Mammals from the online journal PLOS Genetics.    Here is the gist of the story from Carl:

Their results were pretty much what they expected, but they’re still pretty amazing. There were no frameshift mutations in ENAM among the mammals with teeth. But 17 out of 20 species without teeth or enamel had at least one. In all 20 enamel-free species, a stop command (known as a stop codon) was present. These genes are shot.

I am certain that you all teach about “frameshift” mutations.  The two resources above could become additions to your bag of supplemental tricks that make such concepts come alive for your students.  They can also help in your integration of evolutionary biology throughout the curriculum, and to supplement topics like “adaptation, pseudogenes, purifying and neutral selection, molecular clocks, and radiation and convergent evolution”. 

Enjoy reading, and maybe I’ll see meet you in facebook someday soon!