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 expert 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.
"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
"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
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?
I recently read about the American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012) and his discovery of a completely new group of single-celled organisms, the Archaea, in Quammen's book The Tangled Tree. These mysterious microbes thrive under extreme environmental conditions, so I was intrigued and keen to find out more. The French microbiologist Patrick Forterre here describes these microbes, the research that led to their discovery, and the questions and answers this has thrown up. Originally published in French in 2008 as Microbes de l'Enfer, The University of Chicago Press has now made this book available in English to a wider audience.
Why the diabolical reference? The answer to that is also the reason that Archaea remained undiscovered for a long time. After the French microbiologist Louise Pasteur in the 1860s showed that you can kill bacteria by heating them (the process of pasteurisation is named after him), it is no real surprise we were predisposed to thinking that life could not possibly exist at very high temperatures. Boil or fry an egg, and the proteins in it will irreversibly change – much the same happens with the proteins of living organisms, rendering them useless. Yet, whether it was happenstance or sheer curiosity, the American microbiologist Thomas Brock discovered microbes in the scaldingly hot pools in Yellowstone National Park in the US in the 1960s. It was Carl Woese who later showed that these heat-loving microbes, or thermophiles, belonged to a completely different group of life forms, the Archaea. Forterre limits this book to heat-loving microbes, though it is worth mentioning that these are a subset of extremophiles which can withstand all sorts of extreme environmental conditions such as high levels of pressure, salt, or radiation.
Next to the history of their discovery, Forterre lets his co-worker and partner tell of the field work involved in sampling such microbes from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean where they thrive under high pressure, in the dark, and under high temperatures. Probably one of the most interesting chapters talks about the biochemistry and biophysics that allow thermophiles and hyperthermophiles to live at such high temperatures. Why is it that their DNA and proteins do not denature at 85°C, 95°C or even more than 100°C? And is there an upper-temperature limit to life? (Spoiler: yes.) A lot of this has to do with the physics of the atoms that make up biological molecules. You might remember the catchy phrase that "physics is life’s silent commander" from my review of The Equations of Life.
The last two chapters go into the more technical nitty-gritty of where Archaea fit in the tree of life, whether they were the first life forms, and whether they are the progenitors to all eukaryotic life forms (i.e. all organisms that have cells with a separate nucleus such as plants and all vertebrates). The reading here gets fairly technical, looking at ribosomal RNA (though completely not overlapping with Ramakrishnan's story in Gene Machine), viruses and their role in the origin of life, and the various evolutionary scenarios that have been proposed to explain where Archaea fit in the bigger picture, and who is the ancestor of who. Forterre has his own opinions, though it is refreshing to see him explain competing theories, lay out his objections, and indicate where he has changed his mind over time.
Despite the figure of Carl Woese being so important in the history of Archaea, Forterre does not go into much biographical detail in the way Quammen did in The Tangled Tree. The lack of duplication between these two books, then, is fortuitous, and they complement each other nicely. Forterre paces his story well and is brimming with excitement to tell the reader of the history of the science, his own research and that of his colleagues, and the more arcane details of the microbiology and genetics involved. Though the last two chapters will be easier to read if you have a background in biology, this book overall does a great job of making a little-known corner of microbiological research accessible to a wider audience.
Patrick Forterre, former head of the Microbiology Department at the Institut Pasteur, is presently professor at the Institut Pasteur and professor emeritus at the University Paris-Saclay, France.
Teresa Lavender Fagan is a freelance translator living in Chicago; she has translated numerous books for the University of Chicago Press and other publishers.