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Original Essays | August 20, 2014 0 comments
Saint Paul, August 2014 Dear Professor Fitger, I've been asked to say a few words about you for Powells.com. Having dreamed you up with a ball-point... Continue »
Carl ZimmerDescribe your latest project.
I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be alive. Does life have to follow certain rules to exist? It's a ridiculously vast sort of question, of course, and so to make it more manageable, I decided I should zero in just one living thing. I didn't pick humans, because we're way too mysterious. Scientists have only the roughest idea of how all of our genes and the other parts of our genome work together.
Instead, I chose E. coli. Most people know it just as nasty bug that contaminates hamburger and spinach. But it actually lives by the billions in our guts. And about 70 years ago scientists began to run experiments on E. coli to answer some of life's deepest questions, such as what genes are made of. In the process, they established a new science that came to called molecular biology and won a string of Nobel prizes. Scientists use E. coli today to ask even deeper questions about life, like how genes work together to keep organisms alive. And the whole biotechnology industry was built on engineered E. coli. It is being transformed into entirely new kinds of life today. It's also incredibly cool. It can sense heat, oxygen, sugar, and use propellor-like tails to navigate towards food and away from danger. It's got a tiny microbial brain.
So it's the perfect creature to serve as my muse. I got a Petri dish of E. coli from some microbiologists and set it next to my computer as I worked on my book, Microcosm: E.Coli and the New Science of Life.
I write a lot of articles about new scientific advances for the New York Times and various magazines. To write a book, I have to find a subject that can sustain me far beyond what I could write in a short story. I know I've hit a good subject when I start trying to dig down to the bottom, and discover that the bottom has fallen out. That feeling inspires me to sit down and write each day. The problem then becomes knowing when to stop.
What's your favorite Blog right now?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
But I'm also worried that we'll try to use synthetic biology to solve problems that they could never fix. Synthetic biology is the intellectual child of genetic engineering simply inserting a gene or two in a microbe to produce a valuable protein. In the 1970s, when people were scared and wary about genetic engineering, its boosters liked to point out how it would lead to a new source of insulin for diabetics, because E. coli could be given the human insulin gene. That's exactly what happened, and by 1980 the bacteria were churning out insulin on an industrial scale. Today millions of diabetics inject themselves with human insulin made by bacteria. But today diabetes is a far bigger epidemic than it was thirty years ago. Genetic engineering treats the symptoms, but doesn't get at the cause of the disease.
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
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Carl Zimmer writes about science for The New York Times, and his work also appears in National Geographic, Scientific American, and Discover, where he is a contributing editor. He won a 2007 National Academies Communication Award, the highest honor for science writing. He is the author of five previous books, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea and Parasite Rex, for which he has earned fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Zimmer also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.