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Return to Home : July 2004



Antibiotics: Actions, Origins, Resistance

Christopher Walsh. ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2003, 335 p.,$89.95.


Among my other tasks, I am a teacher of microbiology, a job I enjoy very much. In fact, I have the great privilege of providing the introductory lecture on the topic of antibiotics to first-year medical students in one of the public medical schools in Texas. Though most of my students are well trained in microbiology prior to entering medical school, some are not. The learning curve is therefore fairly steep for some. In the space of less than one hour, it is my assigned task to introduce the concepts of what antibiotics are and from where they come, the history of their discovery and introduction for therapeutic use in humans, the current spectrum of agents and accompanying mechanisms of action, and the future of antibiotic usage in human patients (including the inevitable discussion of the development of resistance by the bugs).

It is my experience that while most introductory medical microbiology textbooks appropriate for medical students include at least a cursory introduction to antibiotics, a textbook that covers elementary concepts and progresses to more complex discussions of structures and mechanisms of action of antibiotics, as well as the development of resistance, is lacking. A niche therefore exists for a text spanning this entire range of subjects and which provides a learning curve that, while steep, is also comprehensive and challenges both introductory and more advanced students of medical microbiology. It is my opinion that ASM Press has provided us with just such a tool in the form of Christopher Walsh's new book Antibiotics: Actions, Origins, Resistance.

This reasonably thin volume of 335 pages is comprised of 17 chapters separated into five sections. These include a succinct, yet useful introduction to the antibiotics, a second portion detailing mechanisms of action of the major groups of antibiotics, a third describing a variety of known mechanisms by which microbes are resistant to the actions of distinct classes of antimicrobials, a fourth outlining the biosynthesis of some antibiotics, and a fifth discussing prospects for the future. The volume is thoroughly, if not exhaustively, referenced, and includes almost 500 references (many of them recent and thorough reviews). The text is nicely illustrated, both with detailed black-and-white line drawings, and with a small number of colored plates that illustrate examples of the burgeoning knowledge of the three-dimensional molecular structures of the antibiotics and their targets.

             The author is a widely published and well-respected investigator in the study of antibiotic mechanisms and resistance. He presents information in a clear and concise manner, and always works from the simple to the more complex. This format, in my opinion, encourages readers with varying levels of background knowledge to make productive use of the text.

As I mentioned above, I am already using this text for the purpose of introducing first-year medical students to the topic of antibiotics. In addition, I believe it contains sufficient detail and references to recent reviews to be of value to upper-level undergraduates, possibly as the primary text for an advanced course on the subject, or as introductory background material for graduate students.

            Strong points of the book for me include its relative lightweight and portability, as well as its readability and logical organization. A minor criticism is that I would have preferred that references be included at the end of each chapter. Also, I would have appreciated more use of color in the text, especially in the figures detailing mechanisms of action of antibiotics (e.g., the beautiful full-color illustration on the volume's front cover).

Even accounting for these small misgivings, I consider this a breakthrough text, in that such an accessible and readable book from the world's major microbiological society is a welcome addition to the literature on antibiotics. And how do the medical students view the text? Those who were sufficiently interested (always the apple of the teacher's eye) in the text told me that they had not encountered a similar volume; they felt it would be a useful addition to their libraries both for studying in the short term and for reference in the longer term. Budding scholars all!


David A. Watson

University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston



Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World


Adrienne Mayor. Overlook Duckworth, Woodstock, N.Y., 2003, 319 p., $27.95.


In Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs, Adrienne Mayor chronicles the alleged uses of biological weapons in the ancient world. Mythological interpretations and documented events are intertwined, providing a fascinating, albeit often interpretive and undocumented view, of early human understanding of poisons and infectious diseases and the misuse of biological agents as weapons of war.

Mayor seeks to explain Greek mythology, Biblical accounts of battles and plagues, and the recollections of battles fought long ago in terms of the ingenious and insidious use of biological and chemical agents. In doing so, Mayor does not distinguish between poison arrows and aerosolizable anthrax as biological weapons, claiming that poison darts were terrorist weapons, aimed as much at instilling fear in a population as killing an individual. Toxin-adulterated weapons, of which Mayor describes numerous types and historical uses, are presented as facilitating asymmetric warfare--a poor marksman could kill his adversary by using a poison arrow since it need not need to hit a precise mark to cause death; an inferior army could overcome its foes by spreading disease or poisoning waters.

             But Mayor chooses to consider chemicals, petroleum and fire, denial of water, and so forth as biological weapons. The index contains the terms bees, birds, insects, naphtha, petroleum, poisonous plants, and elephants but not bacteria, viruses, microbes, infectious agents, or infection. Those interested in the history of the civilized world will find many of the claimed uses of biological weapons, such as the alleged involvement of physicians of the Greek Empire in spreading disease or the claim that Winston Churchill sought to use poison gas against the Kurds in Iraq after World War I. Herein lies a serious and unfortunate shortcoming of the book--claims of modern development and uses of biological weapons come from the popular press and ignore the scientific literature. For example, Mayor includes the claims that hundreds of civilians have died since 1950 as a result of U.S. and other experimental biowarfare programs. When it comes to the contemporary threat of biological weapons the author overreaches such as by portraying U.S. DARPA biodefense programs as subterfuge for their “obvious” military purposes and by linking Gulf War syndrome with biochemical weapons that came from the United States.

By blurring hype with fact and by relying upon fiction and unsubstantiated Internet accounts, Mayor unfortunately brings in to question the reliability of the historical accounts which are the heart of her book. In the end, reality is blurred with myth as perhaps it should be as one tries to peer back into the scientific understandings of microbes in the ancient world and the intents of men--current and past--that have shaped civilization warfare.


Ronald M. Atlas

University of Louisville

Louisville, Ky.




Lab Math: A Handbook of Measurements, Calculations, and Other Quantitative Skills for Use at the Bench


Dany Spencer Adams. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., 2003, 275p., $49.00.


How often do we as scientists, regardless of our chosen scientific field and level of expertise, find ourselves in need of a reliable and current reference for resolving problems related to qualitative and quantitative mathematical issues? This book has been written for that purpose and serves as a practical resource for anyone who is associated with science-related specialties including medicine, basic and applied research, diagnostic testing, and teaching each of which requires mathematical applications. In response to this need, the author has targeted this publication to three primary audiences. First, for those individuals who are comfortable with mathematics but have an occasional need for reminders and references within one source and who will store the book in close proximity to the bench. Then, for the audience who is actively preparing for, or is in the midst of an experiment or procedure and requires an immediate answer to a numerical calculation such as determining the grams per liter to achieve a desired molarity. Finally, the third audience is interested in obtaining an explanation regarding the origin of equations and numbers.

The primary intent of this book is to provide the scientist, medical technologist, medical technician, or teacher with a variety of basic and to some extent, advanced mathematical concepts and principles, with one single source. The book consists of eight chapters and it is recommended that the user review chapters one and two before proceeding to the subsequent chapters. The first two chapters provide the reader with a basic overview of numbers, generic types of measurements, and other fundamentals that prepare the reader for the respective remaining chapters. Of particular interest is chapter 5, entitled DNA and RNA, in which the author provides a practical discussion of nucleic acid characteristics including descriptive terminology and application of molecular-based techniques such as, but not limited to, the agarose plate method, calibrating a fluorometer, and predicting the number of copies of target sequence in a PCR product. Chapter six comprises additional methods used in molecular biology with protein chemistry as a primary focus. The application of statistics, and how to communicate numerical data is very well presented in chapter 7. The book is made complete by the last chapter consisting of reference tables, charts, and blank equation forms for some of the more common numerical tasks.

The book is produced in hardback, which will meet the requirements of durability and longevity with its anticipated frequent use at the bench. The book cover exemplifies the need for a single source of laboratory mathematics information and should eliminate the need for post-it notes containing equations, formulas, how-to and shortcuts notes, etc., being scattered throughout the work area.


James W. Snyder

University of Louisville Louisville, Ky.



Microbial Diversity and Bioprospecting


Alan T. Bull (ed.). ASM Press, Washington, D.C., 2004, 496p., $129.95.


Alan Bull has presented us with a magnificent tour de force in this volume he has edited. In 44 chapter-essays (five of which bear his name) the rationales for linking microbial diversity and bioprospecting in biotechnology are thoughtfully and perceptively discussed. The chapters collectively hang-together in no small part because of the shorter essays (preambles) Bull has provided for seven of the nine sections of the collection. The forward by Arny Demain contributes in this manner as well. The scope of the chapters includes not only a comparison of the species concepts in current biological thinking, but concerns with microbial ecology and biogeography, ispersal, endemism, bioinformatics, the conservation of microbial gene pools, and the value of biodiversity. One might wish for just a bit more beef in the eukaryotic diversity synopsis and considerably more in dealing with microbial symbioses with plants. The volume provides emphasis--both explicit and implicit--of the value of the aphorism “seek and ye shall find.”

In addition to being an important addition to libraries' resources, the volume should be welcomed by instructors who wish not merely to be textbooks wired for sound but instead prefer to introduce topics in a general way and then encourage students to read, cogitate, and not merely regurgitate condensed lecture notes. All in all, an extraordinarily significant collection from an international array of contributors.


E. R. Leadbetter

University of Conneticut, Storrs

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