Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Toxin: The Cunning Of Bacterial Poisons

by Alistair Lax


We rarely think of bacterial toxins as being something personal. However nasty they may be, they're still created by unthinking organisms. Yet Alistair Lax explains how the struggle between humanity and bacteria is personal on every level, from the precise way these organisms target the way our cells work to the conflicts between the scientists who have worked to understand them.

The early chapters deal with the history of bacterial infections, taking in major diseases such as plague and diphtheria. It's a wide-ranging and fascinating account of a topic full of tragedy and human interest. The author then moves on to discuss some of the people behind the science. One of these characters was van Leeuwenhoek, who used some of the earliest microscopes to observe tiny life forms in the 17th century. Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and others also form part of the story, which goes into how personal differences affected the quest for knowledge in this field. So much that we take for granted was unknown to these scientists, even in relatively recent history, and the narrative gets across that feeling of researchers having to work blindly with very little evidence to guide them to begin with.

By the middle of the book Lax gets to the nitty-gritty of explaining how bacteria work. He details things like cell signalling, processes of cell disruption, and how proteins, DNA, and cancer can be affected by bacterial toxins. The author doesn't talk down to his readers, and as a result it's a very informative overview. But at the same time this is accessible enough to be understood by someone without a science degree.

The book also deals with the use of toxins in crime and biological warfare. It's a lurid and scary history which will make readers want to boil their water and disinfect their surfaces in paranoia. Some of the history of bioweapons is very dark. Fortunately there's also a positive side to toxins in terms of discovering cancer therapies, vaccines, and other uses for toxins that are only just emerging, and this side of the story gets equal attention.

I enjoyed this book's lucid, readable style. It's the kind of writing that inspires a greater interest in microbiology by opening up our eyes to the complex and intriguing battles that go on every time we catch an infection. Highly recommended.

13th September 2010

Book Details

Year: 2005

Categories: Books


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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson