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Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers:
Tales of Chemistry in Nature
William Agosta

Paperback | 2002 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691092737
248 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 18 halftones
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The tobacco plant synthesizes nicotine to protect itself from herbivores. The female moth broadcasts sex pheromones to attract a mate, while a soldier ant deploys an alarm pheromone to call for help. The carbon dioxide on a mammal's breath beckons hungry ticks and mosquitoes, while a flower's fragrance speaks to the honey bee. Indeed, much of the communication that occurs within and between various species of organisms is done not by sight, sound, or touch, but with chemicals. From mating to parenting, foraging to self-defense, plant and animal activities are accomplished largely by the secretion or exchange of organic chemicals. The fascinating and fast-developing science that encompasses these diverse phenomena is introduced here, by William Agosta, in a series of remarkable stories absolutely accessible to the general reader yet revelatory to chemists and biologists.

Among Agosta's characters are the organisms that steal, counterfeit, or interpret the chemical signals of other species for their own ends. We learn of seeds that mimic ant odors to facilitate their own dispersion and flies that follow the scent of truffles to lay their eggs. We read about pit vipers that react in terror when their flicking tongues detect a king snake, and slave-making ants incapable of finding their own food. And we meet ice-age people who ate birch fungus to relieve whipworms and early human hunters who used the urine of wolves to maneuver deer to favorable sites.

Agosta also chronicles the rapid development of the applied science that makes use of chemical ecology. As researchers deepen our understanding of the biological world, they are making economically significant discoveries (such as enzymes that remain stable in extreme heat), finding ways to reduce our reliance on manufactured pesticides, identifying new uses for traditional medicines, and developing sophisticated new pharmaceuticals effective in treating malaria and several cancers. On the horizon are antiviral agents derived from the chemical defenses of marine species.

From the exploits of flies to the high-stakes effort to cure human disease, Agosta's tour of chemical ecology grants any reader entrance to the invisible realm where chemistry determines life and death.


"In a detailed yet highly readable examination, more akin to a collection of short stories than a dry, scholarly inquiry, Agosta. . . illuminates the role of chemicals in nature. . . . [This is] good, enlightening reading on biology. . . . [S]hould appeal to a broad audience. . ."--Publisher's Weekly

"From the venom that spiders use to kill their prey to the alarm pheromes that earthworms release to warn other worms of danger, Agosta explores nature's surprisingly complex and potent pharmacopoeia."--Booklist

"Without becoming highly technical, Agosta offers an in-depth look at the natural world of plants and animals in a clear, interesting style that makes a complicated subject very easy to understand. Highly recommended for anyone who wishes to better understand the natural world and the part played by the various organisms humans encounter in all corners of Earth."--Choice

"Beautifully written, Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers has a cast full of plant and animal stars. . . . Stunning."--Jonathan Beard, New Scientist

"A collection of fascinating stories. . . . Readers familiar with the author's work will find the same engaging style of writing that the nonscientist can easily understand."--Library Journal

"The book is a delight to read. Each of the stories is told well and many are full of surprises."--Elizabeth A. Bernays, The Quarterly Review of Biology

"This is a delightful book. . . . [It] will fascinate the high school and college biology student and teacher."--Susan J. Karcher, American Biology Teacher


"Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers is elegantly written and a joy to read. I strongly recommend it."--James Gould, Princeton University

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Table of Contents:

Prologue: The Protos and Their Slaves 3
Chapter 1: From Protos and Lepts to Nature's Special Chemicals 9
Chapter 2: Paying Ants for Transportation 25
Chapter 3: Getting Pollinated 39
Chapter 4: Files and the Misery They Bring 59
Chapter 5: Eavesdropping as a Way of Life 79
Chapter 6: Success through Mimicry and Theft 97
Chapter 7: Bacteria: Chemical Complexities in Simple Cells 117
Chapter 8: Delving into Nature's Chemicals 135
Chapter 9: Stocking the Medicine Chest 153
Chapter 10. Loose Ends and New Beginnings 173
Chapter 11. Complexity in the Real World 189
Chapter 12: Capitalizing on Ecology 211
Glossary 221
Further Reading 227
Index 233

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