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Microbes from Hell

At the close of the 1970s, the two-domain classification scheme long used by most biologists—prokaryotes versus eukaryotes—was upended by the discovery of an entirely new group of organisms: archaea. Initially thought to be bacteria, these single-celled microbes—many of which were first found in seemingly unlivable habitats like the volcanic hot springs of Yellowstone National Park—were in fact so different at molecular and genetic levels as to constitute a separate, third domain beside bacteria and eukaryotes. Their discovery sparked a conceptual revolution in our understanding of the evolution of life, and Patrick Forterre was—and still is—at the vanguard of this revolution.

In Microbes from Hell, one of the world’s leading experts on archaea and hyperthermophiles, or organisms that have evolved to flourish in extreme temperatures, offers a colorful, engaging account of this taxonomic upheaval. Blending tales of his own search for thermophiles with discussions of both the physiological challenges thermophiles face and the unique adaptations they have evolved to live in high-temperature environments, Forterre illuminates our developing understanding of the relationship between archaea and the rest of Earth’s organisms. From biotech applications to the latest discoveries in thermophile research, from microbiomes to the communities of organisms that dwell on deep-sea vents, Forterre’s exploration of life-forms that seem to thrive at the mouth of hell provides a glimpse into the early days of Earth, offering deep insight into what life may have looked like in the extreme environments of our planet’s dawn.

288 pages | 45 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Microbiology


“This is history told by a scientist who helped to make it. . . . His book walks the reader through his fascinating journey to understand how life evolved. Today, Forterre believes that viruses played a vital part. Microbes from Hell, in interweaving a scientific life with the grand discovery of the archaea, is a wonderful homage to this exciting field, which continues to challenge our view of life’s origins.”

Sonja-Verena Albers, University of Freiburg | Nature

“The discovery of archaea not only changed the shape of the tree of life; it also raised questions about the common ancestor at the base of that tree and offered clues about how it may have lived. Forterre guides you through the different ideas and how they developed, including an unexpected role for viruses. This is what the book has been building towards, a rewarding discussion of competing theories about the ancestor of all living things by one of the scientists involved in the debate. As all the pieces come together, you’re left in a richer world, one full of unknown wonders, unanswered questions, and broader horizons.”

Sedeer el-Showk | ZME Science

“Scientists who deal in the history of life have never been quite sure what to do with viruses. . . . Viruses, Forterre argues, bequeathed DNA to all living things. Trace the ancestry of your genes back far enough, in other words, and you bump into a virus. Other experts on the early evolution of life see Forterre’s theory as bold and significant. But although they find much to agree with—particularly the importance of viruses to evolution—many also regard Forterre’s ideas as controversial. . . . Forterre himself is trying to fill that gap by studying viruses that live in heat-loving archaeans. Archaean viruses are proving to be particularly diverse and bizarre—such as lemon-shaped species that don’t finish growing until they have left their host cell. Because viruses have such ancient roots, they preserve a remarkable range of biochemical tricks.”

Carl Zimmer | Science

“This excellent, brief book from one of the key players in the fields of microbiology and the evolution of hyperthermophiles discusses not only the microbes but also the major scientists who discovered and study them. Forterre does this in a most interesting and humorous, but also tactful, manner, without losing the focus on the science. Exceptionally well-planned and written in a vivid, most engaging style, the entire presentation has a thrilling sense of immediacy and excitement. In large part, this is because the study of hyperthermophiles is by no account limited to the laboratory bench. An integral aspect of this work includes expeditions to areas of hydrothermal activity, both high up in the mountains and deep down on the ocean floor. Apart from these exotic aspects, Forterre does an excellent job in conveying the excitement of research itself, in particular by providing a simple but accurate exposition of the logic of comparative genomic analysis. Highly educational, accessible, and well balanced.”

Eugene V. Koonin, National Center for Biotechnology Information | on the French edition

“Among the recent adventurers in science, Forterre makes his mark with this exciting book that brings us along on the discovery of life in extreme environments, a surprising and little-known world that thrived in the past and continues to thrive, and even evolve, today. . . . The book (but not the adventure!) concludes while raising the question of the origins of life. . . . A question that never ceases to stimulate the passion of the new pioneers of science, a passion that Forterre succeeds so well in sharing with the reader.”

Découverte (France), on the French edition

“Scientists and industrial researchers study these incredible microbes to tap into the extraordinary strength of their proteins for numerous applications. Through the proteins they produce, these microbes have in fact already paved the way for the sequencing of the human genome and the identification of genetic fingerprints in a hair or sperm! Where do these extreme microbes come from, how are they related to us, how have they adapted to the diabolical conditions of their environments, and have they always lived there?—questions to understand how life began on Earth.”

Science Magazine (France), on the French edition

Table of Contents

1          A Bit of History: Microbes and Humans
2          Hunting Hyperthermophiles and Their Viruses: From the Great Depths to the Laboratory
3          How Do You Live in Hell?
4          The Universal Tree of Life: Where to Place Microbes from Hell and Their Viruses?
5          The Universal Tree of Life: Are Microbes from Hell Our Ancestors?

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