Book on microorganisms – discreet and yet essential

By Michael Lange

The practical book “A History of the World in 100 Microorganisms” provides easily digestible information. (Deutschlandradio / Hanser Verlag)

Tiny microorganisms determine ecological processes on our planet. Bacteria, viruses, microalgae or fungi do a lot more than we realize. A book on 100 microbes is designed to give them the recognition they deserve.

Instead of explaining the history of the world in 100 objects, as Neil MacGregor’s bestseller attempts, astronomer Florian Freistetter and biologist Helmut Jungwirth focus exclusively on the smallest of all living things. Easily understandable and with an eye for the extraordinary, they present interesting and bizarre things from the micro-world on three to four pages each. In addition to nasty pathogens, this also includes slime molds roaming the forest floor or bacteria as aids in mining.

Instead of the promised “world history”, the how-to book provides 100 easily digestible pieces of information. Well researched and entertaining. Enriched with lots of information on the history of science and a dash of Viennese humor, unmistakably in the style of Austrian scientists. This is not surprising, as Freistetter and Jungwirth have been part of the rejuvenated and expanded team around cabaret artist Martin Puntigam since 2015.

Potpourri of the forgotten

Putting together a hundred entertaining stories from the animal and plant world would be an easy undertaking for many nature lovers. But who knows 100 different microorganisms with names like Micrococcus, Halobacterium noricense or Sphingomonas desiccabilis?

Even experts do not come across such names easily. These tiny organisms live in our oral cavity, in the deep layers of the earth or in the most inhospitable habitats on our planet.

A striking number of entries deal with the often overlooked archaea. In the modern living system, they form their own domain alongside bacteria and eukaryotes. These include animals, plants, fungi, and everything in between.

Archaea thrive in saline solutions as well as in deep water. Even extreme radiation, heat or cold cannot damage them. They might even survive in space.

Viruses also belong to the authors’ varied collection of microbes. In the eyes of many biologists, viruses don’t even count as living things because they don’t have their own metabolism. They are dependent and some retroviruses have even integrated into the genome of humans and animals. Over millions of years of evolution, they have become part of these hosts. Among other things, they ensure that we and other mammals do not have to hatch our children in eggs.

Federal microbe instead of federal eagle

The 100 chapters don’t make for a cohesive world story, but a mishmash to read. Always amused and amazed, readers stumble from surprise to surprise.

So there is no doubt that microorganisms deserve more attention. This results in the authors’ suggestion that instead of a federal eagle, a federal microbe should be chosen as the national symbol. Invisible and yet indispensable.

Florian Freistetter and Helmut Jungwirth: “A history of the world in 100 micro-organisms”
Carl Hanser, Munich 2021
320 pages, 23 euros

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