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Book Review: 'The Amoeba in the Room' by Nicholas P. Money & 'Missing Microbes' by Martin J. Blaser

From the WSJ:

In 2004, the rebel geneticist Craig Venter took a sailing trip to Bermuda and, unable to resist doing a little research on the side, hauled up 50 gallons of the Sargasso Sea and began trawling it for DNA. It looked for all the world like cold, sterile saltwater, but Mr. Venter had landed a whopper. He found 1.2 million distinct genes in his sample, all new to science. Based on previous research, he knew that none of this DNA came from fish or plants or any other visible life-form. It was all microbial. For perspective, human beings have 23,000 genes; Mr. Venter had uncovered perhaps thousands of new microbes without even trying.

This stunt underlined something biologists have argued for years: that we know virtually nothing about the world of microbes. By every fair reckoning viruses, bacteria and other one-celled organisms dominate life on earth. Bacteria outnumber all plants and animals by several orders of magnitude, and viruses outnumber even bacteria. Microbes also outweigh us. Just the bacteria found in the ocean weigh more than all the elephants on earth—millions of times more. Yet we haven't even been able to grow the vast majority of microbes in the lab in order to study them. That fact often surprises people—what are petri dishes for, after all? Two new books force us to look more closely—much more closely—at the living world. The view isn't always comfortable or affirming.
 
 

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