2006 Winner: Young Adult Science Book

Invisible Allies: Microbes That Shape Our Lives, by Jeanette Farrell. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005.

This book is clearly designed to be a companion volume to the physician-author’s previous award-winning book for young people, Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease. If the “bad guys–good guys” dialectic has any validity at all in microbiology, then this book balances the account. Inside one finds interesting chapters on the microbiology of cheese, breads (both yeast and sourdough), chocolate, and other foods; on the complex interactions of intestinal bacteria with their animal hosts; and on the microbiology of sewage treatment and bioremediation, in that order. The accounts are well-written and full of fascinating historical and biological detail. The halftone illustrations are numerous, but only adequately reproduced. Included are a short glossary, extensive notes and bibliographies, illustration credits and an index. The only error I found was in the caption of an electron micrograph on p. 96: E. coli is not the most populous microbe in the human gut. Some 95–99% of large intestinal flora are usually obligate anaerobes such as Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium, but exact numbers are very difficult to determine and probably vary somewhat with diet anyway. One household reader enjoyed what she read but suggested that the use of the word “invisible” in the title is a bit hyperbolic, given that all of the microorganisms discussed in the book can be seen with an appropriate microscope.

About the Author

Jeanette Farrell lives in Seattle, Washington, where she has recently finished medical school. Her first book, Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease, was a Scientific American Young Readers Book Award winner and a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book.