Book Review

Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Difficult science made even more difficult

Life on the Edge: Amazing Creatures Thriving in Extreme Environments
Life on the Edge: Amazing Creatures Thriving in Extreme Environments
By Michael Gross

Plenum Publishing: 1998

Buy it now at

This review first appeared in the September 12-13, 1998 issue of American Reporter.

It's kind of a neat topic, really – how do some creatures live in very hot water near underwater volcanoes? How do others live in the salty brine of the Dead Sea? Or in the ice pack of the Antarctic?

Michael Gross' new book looks at these creatures – extremophiles – at also examines how modern medicine and industry might make use of the adaptations they have developed to survive.

But if this is intended as a popular science book, Gross misses the mark by a wide margin.

Gross' book is full of very technically sophisticated explanations that go right over the head of even fairly well-educated folks who don't happen to be specialists in protein splicing. Gross makes an effort and sets aside some of the more difficult concepts in their own boxed-off sections that the reader can skip (a la the computer "Dummies" books), but even the main narrative is awfully damn tough reading:

"Francine B. Perler and her co-workers at New England Biolabs constructed an artificial self-splicing system around the intein of Pyrococcus DNA polymerase by putting the gene for a maltose binding protein in front of it (a so-called N-extein, since it as at the amino-, or N-terminal end of the sequence) and a paramyosin gene behind it (a C-extein, for carboxy-terminal)."

I challenge you to find a non-doctoral student who can read the above passage and understand it. And much of the book – a good 40 percent of the narrative, I'd venture – is of a similar denseness.

Which is too bad, because what sense was made of this book came out pretty interesting. It is no surprise that life's adaptations to various environmental extremes are varied, ingenious and, well, NEAT. Most of the extremophilic life forms here are single-cell organisms, and so their adaptations are, of necessity, at a molecular level: Changing the proteins of their surface membrane to keep certain poisons out, for instance.

Maybe there simply is no way to write a book about molecular biology that a lay audience can grasp. Still, I think if someone like Carl Sagan tackled this same topic, it would have been far more accessible – and the 40 percent that goes over most of our heads now would no doubt be as interesting as the portions we can already understand.