Environmental Microbiology


by Raina M. Maier, Ian L. Pepper, and Charles P Gerba.


Academic Press, Second Edition, 2008 (First Edition, 2000). 598 pages.

ISBN-13: 9780123705198

Pub. Date: October 2008

Online Price: $79.95


Book Cover



Environmental Microbiology; From Genomes to Biochemistry


by Eugene L. Madsen.


Blackwell Publishing, 2008 479 pages.

ISBN-13: 9781405136471

Pub. Date: April 2008

Online Price: $104.95


Book Cover






Reviewed by Glenn Shipley, PhD, MT(ASCP)


As interest in ecology and environmental problems has grown
in the past quarter century, microbiology has played an increasingly important
role in providing us with information about the microbial foundations of the
living world around us – not only the small number of pathogenic species, but
also the much larger group of non-pathogens resident in air, water, earth
and ourselves.  Developments in environmental microbiology have reached the
point where an enormous amount of current knowledge of the subject can now be
assembled into a textbook suitable for a one semester, upper-division
undergraduate or graduate level university course.


Two recent offerings of such textbooks appeared in 2008 with
the same title: Environmental Microbiology. One is the second
edition of a book originally published by Academic Press in 2000. The other is
a new offering by Blackwell Publishing.  But while these two excellent works
cover the same ground and both articulate the key importance of new techniques
in microscopy for this rapidly growing field of study, they are different in very
significant ways – which we hope to make evident in this comparative review.



Environmental Microbiology, by Raina M. Maier, Ian L. Pepper, and Charles P Gerba. Academic Press, SecondEdition, 2008 (First Edition, 2000). 598 pages. ISBN-13: 9780123705198; Pub. Date: October 2008; Online Price: $79.95

The Maier-Pepper-Gerba (MPG) book is written by a panel of scholars
and researchers recruited by the three primary authors, whereas Eugene Madsen is
the sole author of the new Blackwell book appearing under his name. While the
MPG book retained nine of the thirteen original authors of the first edition, in
its second edition five new names appear.  Several entirely new chapters have
been added, and virtually all the other chapters have been greatly expanded or
revised.  The book is complemented by a second volume of practical laboratory
exercises by several of the same authors, meant as an accompaniment to the
textbook for anyone wanting to use them both for a college lecture course with
a laboratory component.


It is evident that the authors of the second edition of the
MPG text have adopted a rigorously “bottom-up” empirical approach, assembling
all that is currently known on the subject, and basing it closely on published
work and experimentally verified evidence.  The book is assembled under eight topical

  1. basic microbiological concepts (Chapters 1, 2 & 3);

  2. microbiological environments – earth (soil), air, and water (Chapters 4,
    5 & 6);

  3. methodologies for detecting, enumerating, and identifying microbes
    (Chapters  8 through 13);

  4. microbial interactions with each other and their environment (Chapters
    14 through 19);

  5. pollution and its remediation (Chapters 20 & 21);

  6. water and foodborne pathogens (Chapters 22 & 23);

  7. wastewater treatment and disinfection (Chapters 24, 25 & 26);

  8. urban microbiology (Chapters 27, 28 & 29).

Nearly every page of the text is populated with tables,
information boxes, colorful diagrams, figures and equations, and with the end
of chapter references there is enough material to keep a diligent student
burning the midnight oil for weeks and months.  A good example is pictured



Fig 13-19  From Environmental Microbiology 2nd
Edition (Maier-Pepper-Gerba), p 267.


Approaching this work from the viewpoint of a microscopist, I
found the writing to be dense but lucid, and the central six methodological
chapters the most challenging and interesting.  While the first six chapters
set the contextual stage by presenting a summary of what is known about
microbes, how they grow, and where they live, that is but a prelude to what
immediately follows. The real revolution in this field of study has occurred
due to rapidly expanding techniques for determining the numbers and varieties
of species that occupy these environments, and how they interact. This includes
the use of fluorescence and other microscopical techniques, molecular probes, tests
for genetic specificity, DNA sequencing, biomolecular amplification systems, etc.
– an amazing array of sophisticated techniques and tools that have forced
microbiologists to recognize that the number and variety of microbes inhabiting
this planet are far greater than those which have been identified in the past
by traditional in vitro laboratory methods of culture, isolation,
differentiation by selective growth media, and chemical analysis of
physiological metabolites. It is now well known that the vast majority of
microbes are not yet able to be cultured in the laboratory, and hence must be
studied in situ in their natural environment, or via specially designed
techniques in the laboratory. The story of the methodologies leading to these
revolutionary discoveries is the substance of the chapters in Part III, and it
is these that the reader will pour over late into the night – and with the
greatest benefit.


Practitioners in the field, however, may find the later
chapters particularly relevant as applied to the problems facing practicing scientists
in an increasingly industrialized and human-populated world.  The sections on
bioremediation of toxic organic and metal products in the environment, the use
of microbes as indicators, and the handling of increasing amounts of sewage and
other waste materials, are particularly interesting in this regard.  In the
wake of 9/11, new chapters have been added on bioterror microorganisms and risk
assessment that will put the chilling prospects of such potential weapons of
mass destruction (WMD) attacks in proper scientific perspective.



Environmental Microbiology; From Genomes to
, by Eugene L. Madsen. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 479
pages.  ISBN-13: 9781405136471; Pub. Date: April 2008; Online Price: $104.95.         

Many of these same topics are taken up and discussed in
Madsen’s book, but the orientation is entirely different.  Madsen attempts a
“top-down” view of his subject matter, adopting a more deductive approach based
on generalizations drawn from evolution, thermodynamics, habitat diversity,
physiology, and ecology – the five components of his two-dimensional “house”
stated as an analogy in the first chapter and visually sketched on page 454 in
the final chapter. These are presented in summary fashion in the first four
chapters of the book: an overview of the field (Chapter 1), key biogeochemical
and evolutionary events forming the biosphere (Chapter 2), microbial resource
explorations as revealed by physiological ecology, focusing in particular on
biochemical energy patterns (Chapter 3), and a geo-environmental survey of the
earth’s microbial habitats (Chapter 4).  The schematic of the model is pictured



Figure 6-11 “Model for the generation and interpretation of
environmental microbiological information….”  From Madsen, Environmental
, p 256.


In these chapters Madsen paints in broad brushstrokes, and
yet with remarkable detail, a landscape that constitutes something of a systems-biological
approach, in order to present the reader with a conceptual framework on which
the rest of the book rests. Madsen’s focus on physiological energy pathways is
particularly well done. But because the overall picture is still largely
incomplete, there are sections that appear somewhat inferential and speculative
– e.g. in sections 2.3 entitled “Plausible stages in the development of early
life,” and section 2.7 entitled “A plausible definition of the tree of life’s
‘last universal common ancestor’” – and even a “citizen science” section
dealing with the possible Martian origin of earthly life. While Madsen is
careful to delineate what is experimentally or paleobiologically verified and
what is speculation, these sections stand in contrast with the more concrete science
presented in subsequent chapters.


That scientific work really begins in earnest with Chapter 5
– “Microbial Diversity: Who is Here and How do we Know?”  Notice that this is
pretty much where the Maier-Pepper-Gerba volume begins (as their Chapter 2). 
This chapter draws heavily on carefully delineated evolutionary linkages, from
recent genomic work resulting in what is now called “cladistics” or “systematics”
(replacing the older “taxonomy”).  Chapter 6 provides a rich exploration of the
methods used to generate and interpret microbiological information in the earthly
environment, including fieldwork and laboratory methodologies (DNA analysis,
electrophoresis, immunofluorescence, metagenomics, hybridization, cloning,
etc.) – some summarized in tables that run on for many pages.  


Chapter 7 provides a “Grand Synthesis” of microbial
biogeochemistry (appearing to contrast with “Environmental Microbiology’s Heisenberg
uncertainty model systems” described in section 6.4).  Chapter 8 explores some
fascinating special and applied topics such as symbiotic relationships between
microbes, plants, animals and humans, biodegradation and bioremediation, eight
biotechnology case studies, and a discussion of antibiotic resistance
acquisition. The book concludes with a short final chapter on future frontiers
in environmental microbiology


* * * * *


These are dense and difficult books to read even for someone
familiar with the sciences which ground them. While there is a profusion of
helpful summary tables, illustrations, info-boxes and study questions, the
sheer volume of technical information is quite intimidating, but well worth the
effort it takes to understand and digest it.


I have two personal gripes about the editorial production of
these books.  A profusion of acronyms is unavoidable in scientific writing of
this sort, and the use of them is widely accepted, and greatly decreases the
sheer typographic bulk of the texts. But acronyms sometimes place an
unnecessary burden on the reader’s memory that might easily be alleviated by assembling
a separate acronym index or glossary at the end of the textbook for ready
reference by the reader. Without it the reader is driven to thumbing through
pages of text trying to find where the acronym was first introduced – a complete
waste of time given the state of computer technology in publishing today.


My second gripe is about colored-background tables and
info-boxes and such.  While this makes for easier text-navigation it often
places undue strain on the reader’s eyesight.  I have particular difficulty
seeing black print on a blue or purple background, so staring at the profusion
of data in a blue table spread over multiple pages is discouragingly difficult
– and needlessly so.


So which book should you buy?  If you are a research or
teaching professional, I suggest getting them both. The Madsen book deserves
special recognition for its bold and sweeping vision for the future
systematization of environmental microbiology.  But for solid classroom work
the Maier-Pepper-Gerba volumes have the clear edge, not only because of the
coupling of separate text and lab exercise volumes, but also because the second
edition of this classic textbook has earned its pride of place, having been assembled
from the work of over a dozen scientists qualified in their specialized fields
of study.