by Daniel P. Haeusser
We recently featured research on black band disease in corals. Today, I highlight illustrated children’s books of microbiology. One, titled Zobi and the Zoox turns to the beneficial, symbiotic role that microbes play in corals. This lovely award-winning book is part of a series from Small Friends Books (Figure 1), which to date includes another picture book and a new graphic novel, each "created through a collaboration of artists, writers, scientists, educators and designers." These books combine microbiology education with adventure stories that highlight interactions (particularly cooperation) between microbes and larger organisms. Factual and compelling, their text and images should appeal to children and adults alike.
Zobi and the Zoox
Set in the environment of a coral reef, this story stars a rhizobium named Zobi who happily lives in the gut of a coral polyp named Darian (Figure 2). But the balance of their interaction come into jeopardy one day: "The ocean is still and it’s way too hot. Darian is getting edgy." Chronicling the effects of global warming on bacterial nitrogen fixation within coral, the story relates Zobi's adventures up out of Darian where she meets Cy, a chain of cyanobacteria who shows her the destruction these threatening warm conditions could cause. Together they journey to find what may be wrong with Darian's photosynthetic Zoox (dinoflagellate algae of the genus Symbiodinium commonly called zooxanthellae). They discover a population of Zoox that is metabolizing at high rates, and producing toxic byproducts – 'nasties' – that stress Darian, compelling him to eject the Zoox. Unless they can do something, Darian's loss of food-providing Zoox will weaken him, leaving his bleached body open to pathogens and threatening the entire coral society with collapse. Together the microbes within and around Darian learn to work together in symbiosis to overcome the disaster and save their polyp home.
The Squid, the Vibrio, & the Moon
Readers of this blog should be able to identify the story of this book (Figure 3) from the title alone. The symbiosis between Vibrio fischeri and Euprymna scolopes has been featured here both by Elio and by S. Marvin Friedman. In this story, Ali the vibrio searches for a safe home while a baby bobtail squid named Sepio whose dark shape in the moonlight puts him in threat from predators. This book uniquely includes a food-web role playing card game available for free with instructions.
The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales
If you were lucky enough to attend the ASM Microbe 2016 meeting in Boston, and you went to Ben Darby's table along the 'Art Walk' on the exhibition floor, you may have seen adverts for this graphic novel along with Darby's own illustrations that appeared in Life in Our Phage World. (Darby has no role in producing The Invisible War, he's just a supporter.)
Releasing in August in hardcopy (though available electronically now), The Invisible War (Figure 4) focuses on medical treatments and human history rather than being a natural history of symbiosis. Nonetheless, the symbiotic role our microbes play in keeping us healthy is at the story's core.
The graphic novel unfolds on two levels: a macro level from the point of view of a Victorian nurse during World War I, and a micro level from the point of view of the resident gut microbes (including the roles of phage) that fight to keep the nurse alive when she contracts dysentery. Many scientists, artists, and funding agencies came together to produce The Invisible War. The product is beautiful, and an entertaining and informative read. Microbiologists or history aficionados who are also comic book fans should particularly love this. The internal illustrations are in black and white, meaning that in the hands of some it may also make a nice coloring book!
How to discover the Small Friends Books for yourself
Electronic and hardcopy editions of these books can be found through links on the Small Friends Books website. In addition, the complete Zobi and the Zoox read by the author can be found on YouTube. Each book includes teaching resources that also can be accessed through their individual websites.
In addition to their fictionalized stories, each book also includes appendices of text and illustration to provide more details on the science behind their tale. They therefore are something to introduce the world of microbiology to young children, non-scientist parents, and novice students, but also as a resource to return to as one's education expands.
Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He teaches courses in the freshman and sophomore introductory sequence, General Microbiology, and an integrated Environmental & Pathogenic Microbiology course. In his lab he focuses on undergraduate research mentoring through projects on bacterial cell division and phage factors that subvert the bacterial cytoskeleton. In addition to science, he enjoys reading, writing, and film. He can be found on Twitter and his book reviews at Reading 1000 Lives or on Goodreads.