“Remember that animals emerged in a world that had already been teeming with microbes for billions of years. They were the rulers of the planet long before we arrived.” -Ed Yong
Last week, I was able to attend Ed Yong’s book talk at MIT. At his talk, Yong took us on a journey through his recently published book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. In this microbial tour de force, Yong describes the diverse ways microbes interact with plants, animals, humans, and basically anything on this earth. Microbes are ubiquitous and Yong explores the ways microbes may shape our global ecosystem and vice versa.
I Contain Multitudes emphasizes how we cannot live the way we do without our microbial partners. Despite the recent focus on the microbes that live in the human body (the human microbiome), I Contain Multitudes choses to broaden its scope and examines microbial relationships with insects, mammals, marine life, and plants. Scientists have been studying microbial communities in these eukaryotic systems for decades and we know more about how these microbes interact with their hosts than we do about how the human microbiome affects our health. Perhaps human microbiome research has been overhyped in the recent years? Yong clearly brings to light the importance of the microbiome in all life beyond the human microbiome.
We often view microbes as either good (environmental, microbiome bacteria) or bad (pathogens) microbes. Yong offers a very appealing and novel concept: microbes are neither good or bad; they just exist and sometimes we benefit each other and sometimes we don’t. “Bad” microbes aren’t out to get us; microbes are just reacting and adapting to what they encounter. Microbes in our gut help us digest food, but if these microbes end up in the wrong place, they may reek havoc.
If you are a biologist, chances are that microbes impact your research in some way. Interactions with microbes affect anything from antimicrobial resistance, behavior, evolution, human health, animal symbioses, medicine, etc. I Contain Multitudes is a fascinating account of how microbes impact all life on earth, appropriate for both general audiences and biologists.