The purpose of this blog is "to share our appreciation for the width and depth of the microbial activities on this planet." Isn’t it fantastic when that sense of microbiological wonder can also be shared with a child? A few years back I reviewed a trio of Small Friends Books published by Scale Free Network, an Australian-based Art-Science Collaborative created by Birony Barr and Dr. Gregory Crocetti. I know that many readers have since enjoyed those books for themselves, and/or shared them with a younger audience.
Now, two more storybooks are available from the team that produced The Squid, the Vibrio, & the Moon and Zobi and the Zoox, two tales of symbioses that entertain while also teaching about microbial ecology. As with the two prior books, the text is by Ailsa Wild and the vivid illustrations are by Aviva Reed. Following the fictionalized narratives, the books each contain a detailed section on "The Science Behind the Story." Filled with additional illustrations and photographs, these sections are useful for microbiological education of children and adults alike, and are richer and more visually appealing than what one would typically find in a textbook or journal review article.
The two new additions to the series continue the symbiosis theme, but also expand into more complex networks of interspecific interactions in soil habitats. If you enjoyed the earlier books and haven’t checked these new ones out yet, I couldn’t recommend them enough.
Nema and the Xenos: A Story of Soil Cycles
Our protagonist Nema joins other nematode companions on an underground journey (Figure 1) in response to chemical signals of pain from a tree, whose roots are being attacked by a voracious baby grub. On their way they are faced with dangers including predatory fungi and hungry mites, but encounter other benign organisms such as an adorably supportive tardigrade. Nema and her friends also pick up some bacteria while making their way to the tree: Xenorhabdus that colonize Nema for transmission to the grub. There the parasitoid warfare begins, biology that our beloved and missed Merry Youle featured here back in 2009. The story and appendices cover the biological features and life cycle of each character (animal, plant, fungal, protist, and bacteria), as well as the geochemistry of their soil habitat. Additional collaboration on this volume came from Professor S. Patricia Stock.
The Forest in the Tree: How Fungi Shape the Earth
This is a story of a Glomus fungus spore that learns to cooperate with a Theobrama cacao plant in the Amazon, written from the first-person perspective of the fungus (Figure 2). I particularly enjoy that voice here, as it changes from the singular "I" to the collective "We" with the progression of symbiosis: "Here, I branch and branch again until I’m like a tiny tree inside the tree" soon turns to "We…have our threads in many places at once – linked to hundreds of other trees and smaller plants… We are part of an enormous forest web". I’m reminded of the voice in Sue Burke’s novels of first contact with extraterrestrial intelligent plant life in her Semiosis series. Together with Streptomyces, Pseudomonas, Azospirillum, and Bacillus species, this forest web grows, adapts, and survives against the stresses of drought. Notable in the scientific appendices of this book are sections on human interactions with soil, and how humans can engage in soil conservation. Also, there is a fantastic two-page spread illustration on elemental cycling.
Whether for pleasure, education, or a bit of both, these two books are essential additions to any microbe-lover’s library.