A Conversation with Author Erik Zinser

Microbiology: An Evolving Science author Erik Zinser sat down with the biology team to tell us a little about his contributions to the new edition and his research.

Norton Biology: This is the first edition of the book where you are a co-author on Microbiology: An Evolving Science. What contributions did you make to the book and how did you get involved with this project?

 Erik Zinser: I was given primary responsibility for five chapters, and was asked to help my coauthors with the editing of several of their chapters. Along with general updates of the chapter material, I was also given the opportunity to identify and incorporate recent examples of gut and marine microbiology, the two themes of the Fifth Edition. 

Photo by Erik Zinser

A few years ago, Joan Slonczewski, my research advisor when I was an undergraduate, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in co-authoring the book with her and John Foster. After several discussions involving the opportunities and responsibilities of textbook authorship, I was happy to accept the invitation.

NB: There are a lot of interesting examples in the book of gut and marine microbiology. Do you have any favorite examples?

EZ: One story I discovered during my writing process described a gut microbe that has a circadian clock. It’s not unusual for microbes to have clocks, but most of those microbes we know about are photosynthetic and grow in the light. Here was an example of a microbe that lives in total darkness, yet operates under clock control. Of course, host organisms such as humans have circadian clocks, and we are learning to appreciate how the host’s clock regulates gut physiology. In this light, it makes sense that gut microbes would benefit from synchronizing their own activities with those of the host.

Another fascinating story I came across involved an unusual marine microbe that changes its genetic code in response to changes in the environment. Most organisms on Earth share an identical genetic code, with which the cell reads nucleic acid sequences (DNA, RNA) and translates them into amino acid sequences (proteins). Some microbes have evolved a different coding scheme, and, as I discovered, some microbes can switch schemes if they detect certain resources in their environment. Switching their coding allows these microbes to make new enzymes that allow them to eat those resources.

 NB: What exciting research are you working on now?

EZ: My research focuses on the interactions that photosynthetic microbes have with their environment and their microbial neighbors. In the ocean, the most abundant member of the photosynthetic community is a cyanobacterium called Prochlorococcus. Prochlorococcus consumes carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and consequently plays a key role in the global carbon cycle. We study how this bacterium provides nutrients to other microbes, and how some of those microbes return the favor by protecting Prochlorococcus from environmental stresses. We perform our investigations both on laboratory cultures and on natural communities during oceanographic research expeditions. More recently, my research group has been investigating how freshwater cyanobacteria, especially those that form harmful algal blooms, are able to grow to high cell densities even when surrounded by infectious viruses.

NB: What do you like to do when you are not working on research or the book?

EZ: Knoxville, Tennessee is near the Smoky Mountains, and there are great trails for mountain biking and hiking. When it’s not too wet, I love to be out on the trail. In graduate school, I took night courses in drawing and painting with acrylics, and over the past 20 years I have enjoyed taking weekend breaks from science in my art studio. Finally, I’ve put my microbiology skills to good use and learned how to ferment vegetables. In addition to sauerkraut, I like to make (and eat) fermented peppers, cauliflower, carrots, and plums, to name a few.