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This Issue's Book Reviews (June 2002) Page 1

Links to reviews – click on a title below

Firepower in the lab
S P Layne, T J Beugelsdijk, C Kumar and N Patel N (Eds)
Washington DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2001
ISBN 0 309 06849 5                        299 pp

Anthrax in envelopes triggered a wave of anxiety in the United States that was made all the more extreme in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack of 11 September. Bioterrorism had arrived. The news media seemed convinced that it was a new threat, with unforeseen consequences. I’ll wager they weren’t half so interested in the publication of this revealing book, which holds many of the answers.

We always complain about the length of time it takes people to produce a proceedings volume. After all, the Sunday Times contains a similar number of words (and coloured illustrations) and comes out in a week, or so the argument goes. Here we have a proceedings volume, covering a meeting held in 1999, and the reasonably short time it took to publish served simply to make it all the more topical.

In their introductory pages, the editors make a sound case for the provision of intermediate grants. As they rightly say, automated analysis is now providing petabytes of information and little support is available for teams of a suitable size to work on such research. There seems to be no shortage of National Institutes of Health grants of $1–2 million, and a generous sprinkling of larger ones over $40 million; but we need grants of around $5–25 million to support teams of about 10 to 15 investigators for four to five years. High-throughput analytical laboratories in this cost bracket could provide crucial information, they argue.

The technology is here to help. One focus of interest is the laboratory-on-a-chip (LOC), though the editors skate round this topic in a manner that is too fast for comfort. Elsewhere in the book, gene response profiling is advanced as a rapid way of screening antibiotics, and gene sequencing is sensibly examined in the context of the future of biological research. There are sections on influenza pandemics, multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis and the forensic aspects of bioterrorism. The 23 chapters cover the ground well, with clear and helpful illustrations that have been created for the book.

We all need a ready primer for an era in which bioterrorism, whether aimed at us by malcontents or by Nature herself, is summarised and elucidated in a clear and assimilable form. This book does much to fulfil the need.

Brian J Ford

The invisible enemy. A natural history of viruses
Dorothy H Crawford
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
ISBN 0 19 850332 6
£14.99                                275 pp

In the light the recent terrorism incidents in the United States, and with fear being fuelled by a limited knowledge and understanding of microbes in general and biological warfare in particular, there is an obvious need for accurate and informative public education on these subjects. In addition, frequent displays of ignorance on scientific matters in the media further promote more misconceptions in the public at large. The invisible enemy is scientific writing at its best – simply explaining the unique ‘life’ cycles of viruses that set them apart from other germs, admitting the difficulties that scientists have encountered in unravelling complex problems, and celebrating progress that has revolutionised treatment and prevention.

The text is saturated with examples (some tastefully fictitious) of how our lives are, and always have been, inextricably linked with viruses. There are chapters that deal specifically with the difficulty of finding vaccines for emergent viral diseases like HIV-related AIDS or Ebola, and how, in hindsight, the effects of BSE may have been preventable. Published prior to our recent foot-and-mouth outbreak, Crawford’s book warned of agricultural practices inviting a swine foot-and-mouth epidemic. There are also explanations of potential viral choices for germ warfare. The lengths that the WHO goes to through international surveillance networks in order to prevent flu epidemics are reassuring, and provide hope against a seemingly invisible and rapidly evolving enemy. This rate of evolution is put into the context of man’s progress into closer contact with other organisms such as pigs and chickens in China that have led to new flu strains, or pushing back the frontiers in rainforests and exposing ourselves to transferable monkey viruses. There is much encouragement provided throughout, from milestones like Jenner’s work to proposals for the use of viruses as magic bullets in gene replacement therapy.

The invisible enemy is highly readable and should be compulsory reading for any journalists who intend to comment on viral issues.

Alex Waller

Vital signs: 2001/2002
Worldwatch Institute. London: Earthscan, 2001
ISBN 1 85383 832 2
£12.95                        pp 192

This is the latest in an invaluable annual series of easy-access global data. The format remains the same with data and graphs on the right-hand page and a one page written analysis on the opposite page. Like recent editions, the book is broadly divided into two main parts. Part One contains ‘key indicators’, with sections on current trends covering: food and agriculture; energy; the atmosphere; economics; transportation; and health and social features. Part Two contains special features. These vary within the Vital signs series from edition to edition, with features being occasionally revisited in some years. Of particular note, this year’s special features cover: the environment (corals, water supply, wetland areas, threatened bird species, farm animal population and area of transgenic crops); the economy (pharmaceutical sales, plastics, microcredit, stock market, socially responsible investment and the toll of natural disasters); and health (antimicrobial resistance, malaria, obesity, and health care spend).

I find this series incredibly useful. The hard data is of value to academics and for those, like myself, who analyse and present policy, the global statistics help to emphasise the need to address policy issues. Consequently, I refer to Vital signs for work purposes at least half a dozen times a year, but it is also a delight to dip into occasionally out of casual interest on at least another dozen other occasions. At this price it is good value and no applied ecology or environmental science departmental library should be without a copy. If your work at all relates to human ecology and you have not checked out Vital signs, then I strongly urge you to do so.

Jonathan Cowie

Ó 2002 Institute of Biology

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