Viruses get a bad rap. Most people just know them as the cause of suffering around the world, from the AIDS epidemic to the common cold. But while many scientists consider viruses too simple to actually be classified as life, the research presented in A Planet Of Viruses shows the incredibly complex nature of their relationship with life on Earth.
Science writer Carl Zimmer has a penchant for writing about things most humans like to avoid; his previous works include Microcosm: E. Coli And The New Science Of Life, and Parasite Rex. Each chapter of his latest work is dedicated to a different type of virus, providing a brief synopsis on what makes a certain species unique, and using the example to launch into fascinating information about what it teaches about the nature of viruses and life in general. A chapter on West Nile virus is used to show how viruses cross the world and jump between species. Another, dedicated to Ebola and SARS, shows how scientists are working to predict the next cross-species virus before it becomes an epidemic.
Some of the book’s information is likely to be common knowledge to anyone interested enough in the topic to pick it up, but many of the facts it covers are absolutely startling. While human papillomavirus is best known for causing cervical cancer, the disease has been evolving to prey on mammals, birds, and reptiles for 300 million years, and has unique strains among human ethnic groups. Zimmer explores further research into how viruses have shaped the course of evolution, showing that they acted as a sort of genetic bazaar, swapping genes between individuals and species. They’ve integrated their own DNA into the human genome, they may be the solution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and they exist in such vast numbers in the ocean that they help regulate the planet’s temperature. New discoveries challenge how we classify them, showing viruses can be much bigger and more complex than anyone thought.
The most disappointing thing about A Planet Of Viruses is its brevity. At 96 pages—many of which are used for photos of viruses—the book provides only the briefest primer on the fascinating science of virology. Zimmer’s writing is clear and concise, and he does an excellent job of summarizing where research stands, with predictions for the future. But the facts he presents are so tantalizing, it’s easy to be left wanting more.