In retrospect, reading Carl Zimmer's slim science book A Planet of Viruses right as flu season kicks off probably wasn't the smartest plan.*
But I am not known for my smart planning, or my smart anything, really. So read it I did. And it was awesome. In short chapters describing such popular viruses as the rhinovirus (that causes the common cold), the influenza virus, the human papillomavirus, SARS, HIV, and many others, Zimmer manages to provide a nice overview and history of his subject, as well as a number of really interesting science tidbits. I found this one fascinating:
"Endogenous retroviruses may be dangerous parasites, but scientists have discovered a few that we have commandeered for our own benefit. When a fertilized egg develops into a fetus, for example, some of its cells develop into the placenta, an organ that draws in nutrients from the mother's tissues. The cells in the outer layer of the placenta fuse together, sharing their DNA and other molecules. Heidmann and other researchers have found that a human endogenous retrovirus gene plays a crucial role in that fusion. The cells in the outer placenta use the gene to produce a protein on their surface, which latches them to neighboring cells. In our most intimate moment, as new human life emerges from old, viruses are essential to our survival." (p. 52.)
Now, I only understand maybe half of that paragraph, and it's not the most elegant sample of Zimmer's writing that I could find. But that is still some fascinating science-fiction-type shit right there, I say.
If I had more time I'd read this book all over again, because sometimes I didn't fully understand what I was reading (particularly in the chapter on bacteriophages, which, as far as I can tell, are viruses that infect bacteria). But I certainly got enough out of the one reading to be able to heartily recommend this one. Although I do think it needs a better cover. Frankly, if it were up to me, I'd splash the author's photo all over it--he's a thinking gal's smoking hottie. And man, he's a good science writer. I still think back on reading his book Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures with real pleasure: never has such a gross read (parasites: yuck) been such an engrossing one.
*I learned that "according to one hypothesis, [most flu cases occur during the winter] because the air is dry enough in those months to allow virus-laden droplets to float in the air for hours, increasing their chances of encountering a new host. In other times of the year, the humidity causes the droplets to swell and fall to the ground." (p. 18.) So when I was out this past weekend and someone sneezed in my vicinity, I freaked out trying to determine how dry the air is currently and therefore how infectious that sneeze would be. Next thing you know I'll be walking around with a little water spritz bottle, just squirting it randomly around myself. Knowledge is fun but it certainly doesn't help make one a more normal person, does it?