A Planet of Viruses- Book Review

A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer

“Viruses are unseen but dynamic players in the ecology of Earth.”

Carl Zimmer originally wrote the essays contained in this book as an educational tool to help people understand more about viruses. This newly released second edition certainly educates.

The Introduction traces the history of viruses as well as viral research by intertwining the story of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. The second section of the book, “Old Companions” highlight several viruses that have accompanied humans throughout history. You will learn interesting things about Rhinoviruses, Influenza, and Human Papillomavirus (HPV). For example, HPV can speed up the cell cycle without allowing the cell to kill itself for protection (p.30). This could, in fact, cause cancer.

The next section shows just how prevalent viruses are throughout ecosystems. Our genomes contain viral genes (p.57). Virus genes carry out nearly 10% of all the photosynthesis on Earth (p.51). Finally, Zimmer discusses the future of viruses. The following show some very interesting facts:

  • HIV is so well studied that we know the molecular steps it took to adapt to us (p.68). Can this help in treating this virus?
  • The West Nile virus can survive inside 62 species of mosquitoes. 150 different bird species in America have been found to carry it (p.75).
  • There are giant viruses that can actually be infected by smaller viruses (p.106).

Zimmer tells a great story in this book. He leaves the reader with something to think about: Should viruses be considered a “deadly venom” or a “life-giving” substance?