Toxin: the cunning of bacterial poisons

Toxin: the cunning of bacterial poisons 
Alistair Lax 
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2005 | 192pp | ?19.99 (HB) | ISBN 0198605587 
Reviewed by Neil Crickmore

Alistair Lax clearly has a passion for bacterial pathogens and, it would seem, heavy metal music given his in-depth knowledge of bands with names related to bacterial diseases. The book initially takes the reader through a brief history of microbiology and the association of diseases with first bacteria and then their toxins. The later chapters then cover the science underlying the mechanism of action of bacterial toxins, before moving on to the uses of these toxins, for both good and evil purposes. The book is not primarily written for the professional scientist or science student but for anyone with an interest in the topic. To cater for the lay reader the more technical terms are explained either in footnotes or in an extensive series of endnotes. This works well.

The book covers all of the major topics that you would expect to find, such as Typhoid Mary; John Snow’s tracking of a London cholera outbreak to a single water pump (below); and the use of anthrax as a weapon of mass estruction, 
in sufficient, but not excessive, detail. 

The book starts with a description of the murder of Georgi Markov using a pellet containing the toxin ricin. This is not unreasonable given that it is such a fascinating story, were it not for the fact that ricin is not a bacterial toxin but a plant one. The author acknowledges this fact, but throughout I felt that the title of the book was perhaps not the most appropriate for the material that he wanted to cover. In many places the distinction between the role of the toxin and of the bacterium as a multi-faceted pathogenic unit in disease is blurred. Also on a personal note, I was disappointed that non-human bacterial toxins, such as the insecticidal toxins from Bacillus thuringiensiswere not covered. Nonetheless this is a book that I will happily keep on my bookshelf and refer to when the need arises.