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CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World

By Scott Chimileski & Roberto Kolter
2017; Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674975910
384 pages; Hardcover
176 color illustrations, 35 halftones
$35; £28.95; €31.50
Dimensions 7 3/8 x 8 1/4 inches

“Contemplating the microbial world requires us to reboot our brains.” So opens the Foreword by renowned microbiologist Moselio “Elio” Schaechter, to this beautiful book on the subject, Life at the Edge of Sight by Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter. “When considering what microbes do, it’s easier to ask what they don’t do. They have transformed this planet—its geology, its atmosphere, and its climate. They are essential to life and to its evolution … No single book can do justice to the vastness of microbial experience. But it can act as an ambassador, sharing stories that illuminate that otherwise unseen world. This is what readers will find here. "e authors’ grand tour introduces readers to microbes with engaging tales, each introducing a foundational concept or two,” Schaechter continues. And all along the way one visually stunning page after another. Indeed, as it was explained to me by one of the authors (RK), the concept of the project was to be a photographic tour of the microbial world—their final product is an absolute success. Life at the Edge of Sight is lavishly visual, and printed on rather large, high quality glossy paper; most of the space on any given spread is occupied by photos.  

The authors are Scott Chimileski, a science photographer and Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Paul Smith’s College (aka College of the Adirondacks) (he’s also Guest Curator of Microbial Life at the Harvard Museum of Natural History) and Roberto Kolter. Kolter is a Professor at Harvard Medical School and Co-Director of Harvard’s Microbial Sciences Initiative. His name is likely familiar to you as he is a co-blogger at Small Things Considered, along with founder Elio Schaechter. Schaechter (who wrote the book’s Foreword) is Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Emeritus, at Tufts University School of Medicine; the author of In the Company of Mushrooms and numerous books on microbiology and disease, and has published in FUNGI a few times over the years.  

For anyone wanting to learn more about—and visualize—the microbes of the world around us, Life at the Edge of Sight is THE book to get. "e book is written for general audiences with no real prior knowledge of microbes, though basic knowledge of, and a curiosity for, biology will be helpful. Anyone high school-aged and above would be enthralled. Microbes are pretty. All of a sudden microbes are cool! Microbes create medicines, filter wastewater, and clean pollution. They give cheese funky flavors, wines complex aromas, and bread a nutty crumb. Microbes have been harnessed to increase crop yields and promote human health. Life at the Edge of Sight is a stunning visual exploration of the inhabitants of an invisible world, from the pioneering findings of a seventeenth century visionary to magnificent close-ups of the inner workings and cooperative communities of Earth’s most prolific organisms.  

Using cutting-edge imaging technologies, Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter lead readers through breakthroughs and unresolved questions scientists hope microbes will answer soon. They explain how microbial studies have clarified the origins of life on Earth, guided thinking about possible life on other planets, unlocked evolutionary mechanisms, and helped explain the functioning of complex ecosystems. They even include an appendix at the end of the book on how to photograph microbes.  

Life at the Edge of Sight opens a beautiful new frontier for readers to explore through images and tales. We learn that there is more microbial biodiversity on a single frond of duckweed floating in a Delft canal than the diversity of plants and animals that biologists find in tropical rainforests. Colonies with millions of microbes can produce an array of pigments that put an artist’s palette to shame. "e microbial world is ancient and ever-changing, buried in fossils and driven by cellular reactions operating in quadrillionths of a second. All other organisms have evolved within this universe of microbes, yielding intricate beneficial symbioses. We pay a visit to Celia Thaxter’s garden in Maine—this is the childhood haunt of famed mycologist Roland Thaxter who went on to described numerous strange and wonderous fungi. We learn how it is that plasmodial slime molds seek out food sources—and move entirely from exhausted substrates. We learn—and see—within layers of bacterial biofilms, discovering that within these layers are different niches for microbes to exploit. (“Different microbes adapt to live at different places within a biofilm much as animals and plants adapt to specific zones in a rainforest, from the innermost regions to the towering canopies.”) "is applies to so many other microbial habitats that the authors tour with us, including soils, layers within a single lichen thallus, and a wheel of blue cheese, from the slimy rind down into the deep blue veins brimming with Penicillium roqueforti. With two experts as guides, the invisible microbial world awaits in plain sight.  

Some of the tales in Life at the Edge of Sight will confound you and may even confound the very definition of what a microbe is. There are symbiotic microbes which you no doubt have heard of; there are microbes that live socially (in many ways like ants and humans) that you likely have not heard of. Within biofilms and swarms of cells, older damaged bacterial cells may be rejuvenated through interaction with younger cells. There are many bacteria and fungi discussed; as well as organisms that seem to exist between those two realms like actinomycetes and myxobacteria. There are “giant bacterial cells that dwarf the smallest known animals.” (Huh?!) Many viruses are larger than bacteria … and one is known to be larger even than the smallest free-living Eukaryote. (Wait … what?!) The authors even touch on what it means to be “free living” and how microbes don’t always conform to our definitions. One marine bacterium, Prochlorococcus, has a mere 2,000 genes in its genome (this is very small, as organisms go). Stranger still, this free-living bacterium (it never forms biofilms or colonies, etc.) only maintains about 1,000 genes per cell; the rest of its genome is spread over many other members in the sea. If an individual is lacking genes to perform a certain task, it must obtain them from others of its kind. Stranger still, Prochlorococcus no longer has the gene for catalase enzyme and instead must rely on another, distantly related bacterium for this. And this is only scratching the surface of Life at the Edge of Sight. The tales of these authors, and their microbes, go even deeper.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi