by Guntram Seltmann and Otto Holst Springer-Verlag (2002) 280 pages. ISBN 3-540-42608-6 £74/$110
For their size bacterial cells are incredibly complex. They possess highly sophisticated cell envelopes that play critical roles in cell survival in diverse environments while at the same time functioning as selective permeability barriers. The Bacterial Cell Wall represents the second edition of a book originally published in German nearly 20 years ago[Seltmann, G., Kühnemund, O. and Reissbrodt, R. (1982). Die Bacterielle Zellwand. Stuttgart: G. Fischer]. In this new book, Guntram Seltmann and Otto Holst provide a completely revised and updated view of the architecture, chemical composition and function of bacterial cell envelopes in Gram-positive, Gram-negative and archaeal microorganisms.
I disagree with the authors on the use of the term `wall' to define the bacterial surface envelope. Generally the term `cell wall' would be best used for the rigid peptidoglycan layer, which represents only one of the many components of the cell envelope (`zellumschlag'). Although it does justice to the English translation of the title of the first edition of this book,`zellwand' cannot account for the outer membrane, capsules, S-layers and other cell surface components. These components provide the bacterial cell surface with a rich range of features that make the bacterial world and its research so fascinating. In the authors' defense, they indicate in the Preface that the term `wall' is loosely applied, but it would have been better to replace it rather than to explain that it means something different. As Woody Allen said in Shadows and Fog, `I know exactly what I think about all this, but I can never find words to put it in. Maybe if I get a little drunk I could dance it for you.'
The book is divided into four chapters covering discussions of the components of the bacterial outer membrane, periplasm, cell wall peptidoglycan and cell-wall-associated proteins, and four additional chapters describing unique aspects of cell wall components in Archaea, cell surface polysaccharides, S-layers and cell wall functions in general. Each chapter has a very classical layout describing each of the components discussed in a systematic manner. Although this strategy clearly provides a logical structure it may be tedious for nonspecialists. The chapters are accompanied by a succinct bibliography that was carefully chosen to represent the major points discussed, but it is sometimes outdated. The diagrams, chemical formulae and tables are simple and useful additions to the text. Overall, the authors have made a great effort to be succinct and comprehensive in covering a topic that may very well fill several books. The Bacterial Cell Wall is a very useful and comprehensive introductory guide to the bacterial cell envelope that could be especially important for undergraduate students of microbiology,as well as graduate students and fellows.