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A Planet of Viruses

Third Edition

Third Edition

Illustrations by Ian Schoenherr
In 2020, an invisible germ—a virus—wholly upended our lives. We’re most familiar with the viruses that give us colds or Covid-19. But viruses also cause a vast range of other diseases, including one disorder that makes people sprout branch-like growths as if they were trees. Viruses have been a part of our lives for so long that we are actually part virus: the human genome contains more DNA from viruses than our own genes. Meanwhile, scientists are discovering viruses everywhere they look: in the soil, in the ocean, even in deep caves miles underground.
Fully revised and updated, with new illustrations and a new chapter about coronaviruses and the spread of Covid-19, this third edition of Carl Zimmer’s A Planet of Viruses pulls back the veil on this hidden world. It presents the latest research on how viruses hold sway over our lives and our biosphere, how viruses helped give rise to the first life-forms, how viruses are producing new diseases, how we can harness viruses for our own ends, and how viruses will continue to control our fate as long as life endures.

An audiobook version is available.

144 pages | 24 halftones | 5 x 7 | © 2021

History of Science


"A Planet of Viruses, Zimmer’s slim collection of essays, offers an edifying tour of the improbable world of viruses, which is also our world. The strategies our bodies have devised for survival are endlessly matched by viruses, with their uncanny intelligence for evolution. Over the past year, their ability to reinvent themselves has heightened the suspense around the development of new vaccines against COVID-19."


“Zimmer reshapes our understanding of the hidden realities at the core of everyday existence. . . . Concise and illuminating.”

Washington Post, on the first edition

“Succinct yet elegantly written. . . . A fascinating and enlightening introduction.”

Guardian, on the first edition

“Just about everything you’ve always wanted to know—and a lot you’ll probably wish you didn’t know—about the viruses that have caused humanity so much grief throughout history.”

Forbes, on the first edition

“Absolutely top-drawer popular science writing. . . . Zimmer’s information-packed, superbly readable look at virological knowledge awakens readers to the fact that not only are viruses everywhere but we couldn’t live without them.”

Booklist, starred review, on the first edition

“A smart, beautiful, and somewhat demented picture book that’s likely to give you a case of the willies. In the best way possible.”

Boing Boing, on the first edition

“As with any great journey, this virtual tour opens your eyes and expands your horizons. . . . Reading Zimmer’s work is like hanging out with the smartest, most interesting guy you have ever met as he regales you with tales of his travels and fascinating finds along the way.”

Science News, on the first edition

“Zimmer is one of the best science writers we have today. A Planet of Viruses is an important primer on the viruses living within and around all of us—sometimes funny, other times shocking, and always accessible. Whether discussing the common cold and flu, little-known viruses that attack bacteria or protect oceans, or the world’s viral future as seen through our encounters with HIV or SARS, Zimmer’s writing is lively, knowledgeable, and graced with poetic touches.”

Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" | on the first edition

"Viruses cause a vast range of diseases, exist everywhere from our own DNA to deep caves miles underground, and will continue to shape human fate as long as life endures. This new edition presents the latest research, including a chapter on coronavirus."


"In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many publishers have seen an opportunity to reissue previously published books on viruses and pandemics. As a reader, it is always difficult to know whether you are actually getting any updated content beyond the obligatory new preface or afterword, or whether this is just a quick cash-grab. Fortunately, the third edition of Zimmer’s famous virology primer A Planet of Viruses is here to prove those suspicions wrong. . . . Each essay has been updated with new research published in the last six years. It would have been easy to just slap in the COVID-19 essay, send it off to the printers, and call it a third edition. This is not the case, however, which reflects very well on both the author and the publisher. Furthermore, this edition features stylish woodcut-like illustrations from Ian Schoenherr that open each chapter. . . . A Planet of Viruses is a captivating primer to the world of viruses that requires zero background in biology. The brevity of the essays and the small size of this book make it a suitable first introduction to this fascinating part of our world. Even for a biologist such as myself, there is much to admire in Zimmer’s writing: these essays are miniature masterclasses in science communication. If, for some reason, you have so far missed out on this book then what are you waiting for? At this price and this size, you have no excuse not to indulge."

The Inquisitive Biologist

Table of Contents

Foreword by Judy Diamond and Charles Wood

“A Contagious Living Fluid”: Tobacco Mosaic Virus and the Discovery of the Virosphere

The Uncommon Cold: How Rhinoviruses Gently Conquered the World
Looking Down from the Stars: Influenza’s Never-Ending Reinvention
Rabbits with Horns: Human Papillomavirus and Infectious Cancer

The Enemy of Our Enemy: Bacteriophages as Viral Medicine
The Infected Ocean: How Marine Phages Rule the Sea
Our Inner Parasites: Endogenous Retroviruses and Our Virus-Riddled Genomes

The Young Scourge: Human Immunodeficiency Virus and the Animal Origins of Diseases
Becoming an American: The Globalization of West Nile Virus
The Pandemic Age: Why COVID-19 Should Have Come as No Surprise
The Long Goodbye: The Delayed Oblivion of Smallpox

The Alien in the Water Cooler: Giant Viruses and What It Means to Be a Virus

Selected References

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