Background: inspired by a post by Jonathan Eisen on his blog ‘the tree of life’, I wrote a little post on ‘a Field Guide to the Bacteria’ last year. Both our posts were about the rather megalomaniacal (in a good way) idea of sampling, sequencing and identifying bacteria from the environment in ‘real time’. So rather than walking through the field with binoculars identifying birds, walking (anywhere) with a small sequencing device+computer and identifying microbes. This is obviously quite futuristic, but I have been thinking about a guide book to bacteria (from now on read ‘bacteria’ to mean both bacteria and archaea) that would be perfectly feasible. I think it is a very cool idea, but it would be great to have some of your feedback to see if it is actually worth pursuing. I am starting with the premise that a) bacteria cannot be identified in the field and b) a guide on bacteria cannot be in any way, shape or from be representative of actual diversity (in contrast to say most regional bird guides). More positively, I also think that c) bacteria can be beautifully illustrated and d) that they have very diverse and interesting life-styles that would make for some good reading. Applying a ‘traditional’ natural history format focusing on species diversity could be a very good way of bringing the sophistication of bacteria to the attention of the general public.
The pitch: a guide book where 100 bacterial species are represented by a page of text and an opposing page with a Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) picture. The format will be like any other guide book, utilizing pictograms to signify key characteristics (e.g. genome size, metabolism and habitat) and a short text segment on general biology as well as a segment on how the species impacts on us humans. Using 100 species would allow covering a lot of bacterial variation: many different taxonomic groups, many different habitats and niches and many different types of metabolism. Examples would include oceanic species, soil species, gut species, phyllosphere species, pathogenic species, hotspring species, food fermenting species, endosymbiotic species, photosynthesizing species, lithotrophic species, multicellular species, tiny species, ‘giant’ species, magnetic species, halophilic species, Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria, Chloroflexi, etc etc. Each species would serve to highlight one specific, interesting behaviour.
The illustrations: beautiful SEM colour illustrations will be essential. Hands down the most beautiful SEM pictures of bacteria I have seen so far are those of award-winning ‘micronaut‘ Martin Oeggerli. Martin uses highly sophisticated post-processing colouring for an ‘acrylic finish’. See below for a fantastic image of a consortium of gut bacteria (including a plant fibre and the eukaryotic parasite Giardia on the far right):
The format: there is some precedent: MicrobeWiki features illustrated descriptions of selected bacterial species (example page here). Although this is a great resource, it is not comparable to the coffee table book I have in mind. There is a case to be made to not produce a book, but build an app instead. This might be cheaper to do and also allow reaching a wider audience. Also, it will be relatively easy to add many more species to the app when the project is succesful. And it will allow linking to relevant websites, such as those hosting genome sequences etc (the downside to this is that the app needs curating to prevent dead links and just having a multi-FASTA file with millions of A’s and T’s and C’s and G’s pop up by itself is not that helpful to the average reader and would need a lot of extra context). Of course, the two formats are not mutually exclusive. I still think a book is nicer though.
An example page: because a picture is worth a 1000 words, my sister Leonie helped me to produce an example page using my favourite bacterium Myxococcus xanthus. The SEM is by Juergen Berger at the MPI and was used a cover for Current Biology for one of my papers with Gregory Velicer (although beautiful, I think the colours are a bit artificial, soil is not blue!). I am not sure about the pictograms yet. Most conventional guides have a little map with a distribution range coloured in. I do not think that will be very helpful for most bacterial species, as they are generally very widely distributed and they definitely do not migrate (my thoughts on bacterial biogeography are summarized in this paper and this other paper). A pictogram of the habitat would be very useful however. Likewise, a pictogram summarizing genome information (genome size, chromosome and plasmid number and shape (circular or lineair) and number of genes) would be essential. More tricky but absolutely necessary would be a clear pictogram summarizing metabolism (and whether the species is aerobic or anaerobic). There are many other small interesting pieces of information that could be summarized in such a standard way.
The contributors: this will have to be a team effort. Here’s who would be needed:
- the scientific community. PI’s that work on an interesting model system would be asked to a) write two pages on what is cool about their model system (+ provide a list of basic information needed to produce the pictograms) and b) send a sample to an SEM facility. In return they will have an outlet to educate the public about their favourite organism by being featured in a book and they will have permission to use a beautiful picture of their bug in their future talks. I know (of) many labs that I could ask to contribute and I do not see any problems there.
- an SEM wizard. The production of SEMs and, as importantly, the post-processing of images would need to be done by a single person/facility to guarantee continuity and consistency. The quality of the images would be vital to the project.
- an editor. That would be me. As with the images, the text needs to have a consistent format and style. Editing text provided by other scientists would be much less work than writing copy on 100 species myself from scratch. I like writing; this should be doable.
- a graphic designer. The book needs to look slick. The pictograms need to be informative and beautiful at the same time.
- a couple of expert microbiologists. Guides usually have a background section at the start featuring more general information about habitats, morphology and life history. This will be a must for this guide, as most readers will know comparatively little about the featured organisms. For instance, having an expert on metabolism on board to briefly explain this complicated topic to the lay person would make the guide much more valuable. The same goes for genome sequencing. Hopefully Jonathan Eisen would want to write the foreword.
How to get there: I am not sure! I guess there are three ways of securing money to make this happen: approaching publishers, crowdfunding and outreach grants. I do not have a
good idea about the costs involved and the sales needed to cover them. I would greatly appreciate your comments on the book idea itself and about financing!