cover image The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds

The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds

John Tyler Bonner. Princeton University Press, $20.95 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-691-13939-5

Most people think of amoebae (if they think of them at all) as ""simple"" single-celled organisms, but Princeton University biologist Bonner (Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales) examines the complex communities they form, known as slime molds, and the important role they play in soil ecology. In slime molds, individual amoebae coordinate their behavior (to move and reproduce) through chemical signals called acrasins. Held together in a slug by a thin layer of slime, the aggregated cells don't all behave alike: some individual cells, for instance, sacrifice themselves to help other cells produce spores, a kind of ""altruistic"" behavior that was once thought the exclusive purview of higher organisms. Bonner, one of the grand old men of microbial ecology, presents a relaxed overview of the social amoeba's biology, ecology and communication process, demonstrating an intimate grasp of the subject and an easy manner of explanation (including straightforward line-drawings) that avoid jargon. Discussing key research findings and still-unanswered questions, Bonner makes it clear that what may seem an arcane branch of biology entails important, fundamental questions of life's beginnings and evolution.