The Tangled Tree
Nonpareil science writer David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology can change our understanding of evolution and life’s history, with powerful implications for human health and even our own human nature. In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT. In The Tangled Tree David Quammen, “one of that rare breed of science journalists who blends exploration with a talent for synthesis and storytelling” (Nature), chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them—such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health. “Quammen is no ordinary writer. He is simply astonishing, one of that rare class of writer gifted with verve, ingenuity, humor, guts, and great heart” (Elle). Now, in The Tangled Tree, he explains how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. The Tangled Tree is a brilliant guide to our transformed understanding of evolution, of life’s history, and of our own human nature.

The Tangled Tree Details

TitleThe Tangled Tree
Author
ReleaseAug 14th, 2018
PublisherSimon Schuster
ISBN-139781476776620
Rating
GenreScience, Nonfiction, History, Biology, Evolution, Environment, Nature

The Tangled Tree Review

  • Jonna Higgins-Freese
    January 1, 1970
    A large part of the book was about Carl Woese, a character who was odd, but about whom I really could not care. He used early, difficult sequencing techniques to identify the Archaea, an entirely separate form of life, different from bacteria, plants, and animals. But since this was already old news when I had Bio 101 in 1990-91, I already knew about the Archaea, and the details of its discovery and identification just weren't that riveting the way they're presented here.More interesting -- alth A large part of the book was about Carl Woese, a character who was odd, but about whom I really could not care. He used early, difficult sequencing techniques to identify the Archaea, an entirely separate form of life, different from bacteria, plants, and animals. But since this was already old news when I had Bio 101 in 1990-91, I already knew about the Archaea, and the details of its discovery and identification just weren't that riveting the way they're presented here.More interesting -- although, again, already known to me, and not that interesting in the details of its discovery, was the realization (in 1944) that it was DNA that could transform a benign bacterium into a virulent one, through "infective heredity." (225). The interesting part of that was how early this was known, how early we knew how difficult it would be to keep ahead of bacteria in the resistance area.But then things get interesting. I didn't know the overall phrase "horizontal gene transfer." Transformation, in the above sense, was one (transfer of genetic material from a dead bacterium to a live one). A second was conjugation, a sort of "sex" between bacteria. The other involves viruses carrying foreign DNA into the cells they infect, called transduction (227).Evidence of bacteria that were resistant to various antibiotics *before* the human populations in which they were found were exposed to those abx -- because they are derived from plant compounds in the first placeMaurice Panisset, in _A New Bacteriology-, made "the case that all bacteria on Earth constitute a single interconnected entity, a single species - no, wait, maybe even a single _individual_ creature -- through which genes from all the variously named 'species' flow relatively freely, by horizontal gene transfer, fo ruse where needed" (252) (a "superorganism" idea related in spirit, but not particulars, to Margulis's Gaia hypothesis and the idea that mitochondria had once been free-living bacteria" (253)And when they started looking, scientists found horizontal transfer *everywhere* -- bacterial genes in fish and plants (255). Sea urchins one to another, though their lineages had been separate for 65 million years. E. coli to a fungus, brewer's yeast. (some microbes are eukaryotic -- so they come in three flavors, since there are also bacteria and archaea). Bdelloids (which have only females, having gone without sex for 25M years), scientists have "found all sorts of craziness that shouldn't have been there. More specifically, they found at least twenty-two genes" from bacteria, fungi, and plants. A few were still functional. 8% of bdelloid genes had been acquired from bacteria "or other dissimilar creatures" (258).One parasitic bacteria infects the germline (eggs) of insects, and has managed to get itself included in the host's genome -- one fruit fly has incorporated *the entire Wolbachia genome* into its own DNA (262). The same researcher found that bacterial DNA can be found in normal human genomes, but they are "210 times more common in tumor cells than in healthy cells" (263). "In leukemia cell genomes, they found stretches resembling the DNA of Acinetobacter bacteria, a group that includes infectious forms often picked up in hospitals. In the stomach tumor genomes, they found pieces suggesting Pseudomonas . . . " The genome of one cabbage-related plant is 18% bacterial. A fungus contains 850 genes from bacteria and archaea. The human genome contains 263,000 letters of bacterial DNA transferred from our mitochondria (endosymbiotic gene transfer) (294).And there's more: in one study, researchers looked at the genomes of 2,235 complete bacterial genomes, half o fthem closely associated with humans, along with their ecological (where on/in the body) and geographic (where in the world) provenance. They looked for close matches in the genes, which would "signal a relatively recent horizontal transfer event for that gene" (325). They found 10,770 incidents. What predicted transfer? "The shared ecology of the human gut, or the vagina, or the nasal passages, or the skin, was most conducive to horizontal transfer. The shared phylogeny of membership in the same bacterial lineage came second. The shared geography of the same continent was a weak third." (326)Dunning HOtopp's research faced "adamant resistance among a few influential biologists, including some Nobel Prize winners, to her and her colleagues' discoveries of HGT in the animal kingdom. 'No, it's got to be an artifact. You have to be able to explain it some other way.' Animals don't experience horizontal gene transfer, period. Humans, certainly not."'Do you ever say to them, "Is that a faith-based statement?" I asked. What I meant was: it seemed almost as though the Weismann barrier had become a theological dogma."She mused about that for a moment and allowed that some scientists did appear to be more religious about science than about religion. A touch of faith-based genomics? 'I think it is,' she said." (264).Jim Brown and Ford Doolittle looked at 66 different proteins "that are essential to all forms of life, and at the different variatns of those proteins as reflected in more than 1,200 different gene sequences, from a wide variety o fbacateria, archaea, and eukaryotes. They constructed an indvidiual tree for each of the sixty six proteins, showing how it had evolved into distinct variants within different lineages of creatures. Brown and Doolittle compared the variants, constructing an independent tree of descent for each. This exercise yielded a telling point: the trees didn't match. The logical conclusion was that genes have their individual lineages of descent, not necessarily matchin gthe lineage of the organism in which they are presently found. [As] Robert Feldman [said], "each gene has its own history." (281)And so the tree of life has been redrawn, more as a weird, tangled shrub or "reticulated tree" (285)
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  • Angie
    January 1, 1970
    This is a book at war with itself, trying to be many things at the same time. It is a well-written examination of evolution, the inadequacy of the standard tree metaphor for it, and the messiness of gene transfer. Quammen explores horizontal gene transfer and the uncertainty in what a species actually is, what an individual is (with all the little cells that live in us but don't share DNA). This is timely and fascinating stuff.It is also a biography of, and tribute to, Carl Woese. I hadn't known This is a book at war with itself, trying to be many things at the same time. It is a well-written examination of evolution, the inadequacy of the standard tree metaphor for it, and the messiness of gene transfer. Quammen explores horizontal gene transfer and the uncertainty in what a species actually is, what an individual is (with all the little cells that live in us but don't share DNA). This is timely and fascinating stuff.It is also a biography of, and tribute to, Carl Woese. I hadn't known of Dr. Woese before reading the book (I'm not a biologist), but he's the one who first expanded the types of life beyond the original two, to include archea. He was a pioneer in genomic evolution, i.e. studying how closely related organisms are by looking at their DNA. His story fits into what I otherwise see as Quammen's main point because his work and discovery complicated the idea of the tree of evolution and helped people to see the connections between very different forms of life. But Quammen spent a lot of time researching Woese, talking to people who knew him, trying to get the essence of the man, to the point that this becomes half a Worse biography and it takes away from his main point. The second half of the book is stronger than the first, because we get closer to modern history and the astounding discoveries made in the last 30 years or so, but with every new topic, Quammen returned to Woese, checking in to see what he thought of it. And, well, in most cases, Woese was a crotchety old man working to protect his legacy and feuding with anyone who disagreed with him. So yes, I very much feel like this weakened the book.Whole chapters about Woese could be removed and the book could be improved and shortened. But I still give it 4 stars because of how well they key chapters on gene transfer are written. I learned some things, and that's always a good thing. He also spends quite a bit of time introducing us to biologists working in these fields, and that's well done as well. He keeps returning to the tree metaphor, and that results in a couple rather amusing interludes regarding imaginative topiary hobbyists. His final chapter is the best, I think, and I wish it were the introduction. Maybe I would suggest reading it first. He says that he has worked to show us that three fundamentals of biology -- species, individuals, and the tree of evolution -- are misleading at best. He spends most of the time in the book on species, then on the tree, and least on individuals (although he recommends I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life for more detail on that subject, and I can't agree more). And for that, I highly recommend the book. But it will help if you're either intrinsically interested in Woese or maybe skim over his biographical sections.I got a copy to review from Net Galley.
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  • Carol Kean
    January 1, 1970
    Comprehensive, exhaustive, entertaining, at times gossipy, and altogether wonderful! If more science books were so rich with stories of the scientists, more students might be riveted to classes in genetics and evolutionary biology.I cannot imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book. Interviews with authors living or then-living, now-dead, bring to life the drama and controversies and obstacles that beset even a rational scientist. Never mind scientific object Comprehensive, exhaustive, entertaining, at times gossipy, and altogether wonderful! If more science books were so rich with stories of the scientists, more students might be riveted to classes in genetics and evolutionary biology.I cannot imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book. Interviews with authors living or then-living, now-dead, bring to life the drama and controversies and obstacles that beset even a rational scientist. Never mind scientific objectivity; emotions, and ambitions, fly high in humans of every field of endeavor.I have hundreds, literally hundreds, of passages in my Kindle, highlighted, waiting for me to share, but there is that disclaimer about not sharing an ARC because this isn't the final version. So let me just say Karl Woese. O Karl!I wanted to understand the sideways evolution thing. I wanted to be a doctor, back in the day; then a coroner, at least; but my fascination for science was never paired with a mind capable of grasping the mathematical intricacies. Which reminds me of Karl Woese, turning to a mathematician, not a biologist, to help prove a theory he had been working on forever.Later, I might take the time to pull passages and rave, rave, rave over the details. If you find them too much, you can always skim past some of the biographical information and cut to the chase, the science, but then you may not find enough science left over. I'm thinking I need to find a Genetics for Dummies book that sticks to the science, skims past the personalities, and helps me tell someone what the heck I just read. Sadly, I am not able to sum it up off the top of my head. Books like this, I have to revisit, repeatedly, before it sinks in.Oh, I know people who can read a chapter once, never give it a second glance, and score 100% on a test over the chapter. I am not one of those people. (Dr. Mat Weekly, can you copy some of your brain cells and do a genetic transfer over to mine?)Yes, I'm thinking of getting him a copy of this book, but I'm not sure I want to hear how elementary and "easy" it is for people who really have the brains to fathom the stuff I love reading about.This is a great book. I need to kee re-reading it, and I may need to find an easier book to explain it all, but this is still great! The narrative tone reminds me of Sam Kean (no relation to Carol Kean). Now, Sam writes in a way that doesn't overwhelm me, and he tends to keep his books a wee bit shorter and to the point.But, again, if this one offers too much, skim past the bonus material and hone in on the meat and marrow.
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  • Gail
    January 1, 1970
    Let’s start here: Mind. Blown. Few books I’ve read in my long life have had such a walloping impact. This deserves the National Book Award for non-fiction. It’s that good. Do you wonder about the origin of life? Evolution? The “whats” and the “hows” more than the “whys”? This is the story of what we’ve learned about how living organisms emerged and grew into the endless variety we have today. It’s a story in which bacteria and a group of living things called archaea became the focus of evolution Let’s start here: Mind. Blown. Few books I’ve read in my long life have had such a walloping impact. This deserves the National Book Award for non-fiction. It’s that good. Do you wonder about the origin of life? Evolution? The “whats” and the “hows” more than the “whys”? This is the story of what we’ve learned about how living organisms emerged and grew into the endless variety we have today. It’s a story in which bacteria and a group of living things called archaea became the focus of evolutionary genomics. That Tree of Life that we grew up with? Well, maybe it’s not a tree at all. And maybe humans aren’t ... human in the way we think they are. Maybe we aren’t unique. Genetics has turned almost everything we thought we knew about biology upside down. It started with a man I’d never heard of: Carl Woese. He was a physicist, not a biologist. A man of exquisitely inquisitive mind who wanted to know the ancient origins of life. He cared little about modern life-forms and was utterly intolerant of science that made “engineering” solutions the goal. Rather, he cared immensely about how we all emerged into the separate “kingdoms” and “species” that were defined when his work first began. Laboriously, he took genetic fingerprints of bacteria to establish the genetic relationships between the more primitive life forms. That work led to his contention that there were three kingdoms of life... one of which wasn’t identified until he undertook his groundbreaking work. And thus the story begins. Is Woese right? Is he a crackpot? Does his work confirm the story that Darwin set out about how life evolves or is there more to the story that Darwin didn’t understand? The author is a renowned science writer and I’m loathe to admit that I’d never heard of him. I read an article that was adapted from this book, which set me on a path to finding and reading it. Quammen has a sense of humor and the ability to take indescribably complex information and make it accessible to lay people. As a result, I was dumbstruck by what’s been happening in evolutionary biology and how so many things I’d learned about how biology works are now in serious question. Understanding the material presented here is crucial to recognizing the implications of antibiotic resistance (via HGT- Horizontal Gene Transfer), emerging viruses that threaten all living things, and even why gene editing via CRISPR is possible. The scope of this work is breathtaking. We meet scientists from around the world and explore those who came before them (like Darwin), all leading to the new field of phylogenomics. If you love the history of science, ponder what it means (at least biologically) to be human, are curious about how life evolved, appreciate a great story, or want to know where science might be taking us, then this book is essential reading. Twice. Maybe more. Highly recommend. Ten stars if I could give them.
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  • Carol Peters
    January 1, 1970
    Excellent. Boatloads of stuff I didn't know about that has been discovered during the past twenty years of bio-evolutionary-mathematical-physics. What is so far known about horizontal gene transfer.Was sorry it ended.Highly recommend.
  • Tfalcone
    January 1, 1970
    Thank you Net Galley for the free ARC: This is a very thorough book on the development of the tree of life from Darwin's humble beginnings to the three domain system that Carl Woese developed. There are many more contributors of course, too many to name them all - Haeckel, Margulis, Doolittle - but this book is really an homage to Woese. I have a fairly wide biology background, so some of this was review. I do feel the book is for professionals and would be over high school students heads.
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  • Dennis
    January 1, 1970
    This book provides an extremely interesting, enjoyable, and readable overview of the history of the theory of evolution, from Darwin and before, up to the most current ideas. The central figure in the book is Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, and there are also many engaging mini-biographies of other important figures (Charles Darwin, of course, but also Ernst Haeckel, Lynn Margulis, Ford Doolittle, and several others), and explanations of their contributions to the science.The author explains This book provides an extremely interesting, enjoyable, and readable overview of the history of the theory of evolution, from Darwin and before, up to the most current ideas. The central figure in the book is Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, and there are also many engaging mini-biographies of other important figures (Charles Darwin, of course, but also Ernst Haeckel, Lynn Margulis, Ford Doolittle, and several others), and explanations of their contributions to the science.The author explains a lot about biology, and cellular biology in particular, in support of the author’s central thesis; that different forms of life are far more interrelated that we realized just a few decades ago (hence the name of the book). This greater degree of interrelation arises because of Horizontal Gene Transfer (“HGT”), by which means living organisms can transfer their genes to organisms in other species or even other kingdoms or domains. The transplanted genes might not have any impact on the new host, or they might be harmful, or they might be beneficial. An example of the latter category is the gene that enables mammals to develop placentas.The author also explains a great deal about how scientists painstakingly figured out how cells work, from the first observations of bacteria in the 1600s, to the functions of ribosomes and DNA, to Carl Woese’s discovery of archaea, and, ultimately, to the importance of Horizontal Gene Transfer in both evolution and medicine.In addition to the science, the book goes into conflicts between scientists with different points of view, or scientists who agree on the science but disagree about who should get credit, and the importance of getting credit for grant applications and tenure awards. As an outsider, I found this insight into the human side of the scientific community fascinating. I come at the subject of evolution from the Intelligent Design point of view (though I am a Christian, I don’t believe that science supports a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis). One of the things I found refreshing about this book is that it didn’t contain attacks on people like me who believe that evolution could only make sense if it was intelligently guided. I won’t lie about the science; at times, it got pretty dense. But the author does a good job of explaining the science in an understandable way, and I was able to get the important concepts, though I have no science background.I purchased and listened to the audiobook. The narrator did a fantastic job – his pacing and enunciation were terrific, and his voice was very pleasant. This book is highly recommended.
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  • Patrick C.
    January 1, 1970
    This book progresses on two levels. It focuses on how advances in the field of molecular biology have revealed unexpected new information about the operations of RNA & DNA that, in turn, have had an even more profound impact on fundamental theories of the evolution of life on earth. The impact has directly revised some of Darwin’s core ideas, most visibly, the very idea (and image) of the “tree of life”.The second level deals with the life and work of a scientist (Carl Woese) at the center o This book progresses on two levels. It focuses on how advances in the field of molecular biology have revealed unexpected new information about the operations of RNA & DNA that, in turn, have had an even more profound impact on fundamental theories of the evolution of life on earth. The impact has directly revised some of Darwin’s core ideas, most visibly, the very idea (and image) of the “tree of life”.The second level deals with the life and work of a scientist (Carl Woese) at the center of these discoveries and revelations, and the work, communications, collaborations and conflicts among other scientists working in this area. David Quammen, an author at the top of science writing (who I’ve followed from his early days writing for Rolling Stone, Outside, The Atlantic, etc.), has extensively interviewed many of those directly involved and this gives an intimate view of the workings of scientists, their brilliance, the creativity of new research techniques, the doggedness and risks of the work, and the personalities that often complicated the progress. I’ve actively pursued readings on the theory of evolution and the personalities involved, but this information from the past 30 - 40 years was intriguing, and, at points, mind-blowing!! I won’t reveal any spoilers. Given the general disconnect with science in our contemporary culture, this narrative reveals the quality and integrity of those actually doing the work.Probably not for everyone, I do highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys maintaining a layman’s currency with science, especially biology, and/or biographical stories of great people....
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  • Billie Hinton
    January 1, 1970
    If, like me, you studied biology in the 1970s, this lively book by David Quammen will catch you up with new information and research while being entertaining at the same time. A romp through the history of evolution and the tree of life method of biological categorization reads like a mystery, with suspense and action. The main and very interesting characters are the scientists behind the new perspectives Quammen reveals in wonderful anecdotes and details drawn from his own interviews and resear If, like me, you studied biology in the 1970s, this lively book by David Quammen will catch you up with new information and research while being entertaining at the same time. A romp through the history of evolution and the tree of life method of biological categorization reads like a mystery, with suspense and action. The main and very interesting characters are the scientists behind the new perspectives Quammen reveals in wonderful anecdotes and details drawn from his own interviews and research.It’s a delightful mix of science and history, both informative and entertaining. Highly recommend.
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  • James Davisson
    January 1, 1970
    Like my last read, "God Save Texas," a blend of nonfiction genres, with an intriguing focus. Similarly difficult to sum up; "a new history of life" doesn't really capture it. Is this a biography of Carl Woese, discoverer of the Archaea; an examination of a rich and fruitful idea, the tree of life; or a history of a discipline, molecular biology? Yes. All of the elements here are strong, by my favorite is the author's voice: personal, not self-absorbed, willing to spout science jargon and gently Like my last read, "God Save Texas," a blend of nonfiction genres, with an intriguing focus. Similarly difficult to sum up; "a new history of life" doesn't really capture it. Is this a biography of Carl Woese, discoverer of the Archaea; an examination of a rich and fruitful idea, the tree of life; or a history of a discipline, molecular biology? Yes. All of the elements here are strong, by my favorite is the author's voice: personal, not self-absorbed, willing to spout science jargon and gently jokey about how little of it really matters to grasp the story being told. Fun, thoughtful and warm. An excellent book.
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  • Don Kent
    January 1, 1970
    I confess I struggled with the first 300 pages of this fine book but I perserveered and the final 90 odd pages were certainly worth the struggle. As profound as it was at times dificult, David Quammen has once again proven to me that he is one of finest of authors taking on the tough subjects in science. Retrospectively, I cannot fathom how the subject could have been addressed any other way but the degree of difficulty cost him one star.
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  • Gladys Schrynemakers
    January 1, 1970
    Great book that takes the discussion of evolution to the next level.
  • Tim Dugan
    January 1, 1970
    It’s ok but I wish it had more technical details. The people stories are ok but less valuable than the science
  • Mark Waggoner
    January 1, 1970
    I listened to the audiobook version of this, something I have seldom done before. I’m not sure I would have made it through it in print, but very much enjoyed it in audio form.
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