IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites control the minds of their hosts, sending them to their destruction.
IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites are masters of chemical warfare and camouflage, able to cloak themselves with their hosts' own molecules.
IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites steer the course of evolution, where the majority of species are parasites.
WELCOME TO EARTH.
For centuries, parasites have lived in nightmares, horror stories, and in the darkest shadows of science. Yet these creatures are among the world's most successful and sophisticated organisms. In Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer deftly balances the scientific and the disgusting as he takes readers on a fantastic voyage. Traveling from the steamy jungles of Costa Rica to the fetid parasite haven of southern Sudan, Zimmer graphically brings to life how parasites can change DNA, rewire the brain, make men more distrustful and women more outgoing, and turn hosts into the living dead.
This thorough, gracefully written book brings parasites out into the open and uncovers what they can teach us about the most fundamental survival tactics in the universe.
One of the year's most fascinating works of popular science is also its most disgusting. From tapeworms to isopods to ichneumon wasps, "parasites are complex, highly adapted creatures that are at the heart of the story of life." Zimmer (At the Water's Edge) devotes his second book to the enormous variety of one- and many-celled organisms that live on and inside other animals and plants. The gruesome trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness had nearly been routed from Sudan when the country's civil war began: now they're back. Costa Rican researcher Daniel Brooks has discovered dozens of parasites, including flies that lay eggs in deer noses: "snot bots." And those are only the creatures from the prologue. Zimmer discusses how the study of parasites began, with 19th-century discoveries about their odd life cycles. (Many take on several forms in several generations, so that a mother worm may resemble her granddaughter, but not her daughter.) He looks at how parasites pass from host to host, and how they defeat immune systems and vice versa. Many parasites alter their hosts' behavior: Toxoplasma makes infected rats fearless, thus more likely to be eaten by cats, who will then pick up the microbe. Quantifiable "laws of virulence" lead parasites to become nasty enough to spread, yet not so nasty as to wipe out all their hosts. And eons of coevolution can affect both partners: howler monkeys may avoid violent fights because screwworms can render the least scratch fatal. Two final chapters address parasites in human medicine and agriculture. Not only are parasites not all bad, Zimmer concludes in this exemplary work of popular science, but we may be parasites, tooDand we have a lot to learn from them about how to manage earth, the host we share. Illus. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer
The boy in the bed in front of me was named Justin, and he didn't want to wake up. His bed, a spongy mat on a metal frame, sat in a hospital ward, a small concrete building with empty window frames. The hospital was made up of a few of these buildings, some with thatched roofs, in a wide dusty courtyard. It felt more like a village than a hospital to me. I associate hospitals with cold linoleum, not with goat kids in the courtyard, punching udders and whisking their tails, not with mothers and sisters of patients tending iron pots propped up on little fires under mango trees. The hospital was on the edge of a desolate town called Tambura, and the town was in southern Sudan, near the border with the Central African Republic. If you were to travel out in any direction from the hospital, you would head through little farms of millet and cassava, along winding paths through broken forests and swamps, past concrete-and-brick funeral domes topped with crosses, past termite mounds shaped like giant mushrooms, past mountains covered in venomous snakes, elephants, and leopards. But since you're not from southern Sudan, you probably wouldn't have traveled out in any direction, at least not when I was there. For twenty years a civil war had been lingering in Sudan between the southern tribes and the northerners. When I visited, the rebels had been in control of Tambura for four years, and they decreed that any outsiders who arrived on the weekly prop plane that landed on its muddy airstrip could travel only with rebel minders, and only in the daytime.
Justin, the boy in the bed, was twelve years old, with thin shoulders and a belly that curved inward like a bowl. He wore khaki shorts and a blue-beaded necklace; on the window ledge above him was a sack woven from reeds and a pair of sandals, each with a metal flower on its thong. His neck was so swollen that it was hard to tell where the back of his head began. His eyes bulged in a froglike way, and his nostrils were clogged shut.
"Hello, Justin! Justin, hello?" a woman said to him. There were seven of us there at the boy's bedside. There was the woman, an American doctor named Mickey Richer. There was an American nurse named John Carcello, a tall middle-aged man. And there were four Sudanese health workers. Justin tried to ignore all of us, as if we'd all just go away and he could go back to sleep. "Do you know where you are?" Richer asked him. One of the Sudanese nurses translated into Zande. He nodded and said, "Tambura."