Monday, February 6, 2017

Review of "I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life" by Ed Yong

Though we might lather our skin with antibacterial soap, clean our hands with alcohol sanitizers, gargle with mouthwash, scrub our kitchen surfaces, disinfect our bathrooms, spray Lysol all over the house, take antibiotics, etc., there are - and always will be - microbes everywhere. This is especially true of our warm moist bodies - which are covered inside and out with microorganisms....and this is a good thing.

In fact our bodies are really an indivisible aggregate of 'our' tissues and organs....and the microbial world that makes its home there. Moreover this is true for every multicellular organism on Earth. The totality of microorganisms (and their parts) in/on our bodies is called our 'microbiome', and it's composed of myriad kinds of bacteria, viruses, archaea, snippets of microbial DNA, and other miniscule microbial fragments. This microbiome helps digest our food, produces vitamins and minerals, breaks down toxins and dangerous chemicals, guides our embryonic development, assists our immune system, probably influences our behavior, and so on.

In this entertaining and illuminating book, Yong touches on the evolution of microbes; the history of microbiology; symbiotic relationships among microbes; symbiosis between microbes and higher organisms; dysbiosis (unbalanced microbiomes that harm their hosts); how scientists study and identify microbiomes; research studies aimed at seeding hospitals and buildings with 'good microbes'; and much more.

Most people probably associate microbes with disease, and Yong provides some examples of pathogenic organisms. The vast majority of microbes are beneficial though, and I was fascinated to read about their varied roles in the world of living things. I've had a rather varied career and in a galaxy far away and long ago I got a degree in microbiology.....but this book has a lot of new and exciting information.

I'll give examples of a few intriguing factoids gleaned from the book:

1. We can improve our health by nurturing 'helpful' bacteria in our digestive system. Since fiber-loving bacteria are supposed to boost the immune system I added a LOT of fiber to my diet.....and I think I feel healthier already!!

2. Newborns are bathed in good microbes during vaginal delivery. Thus, infants born by caesarean section - lacking this initial 'seeding' - develop different microbiomes than vaginal babies. Breast-feeding also provides babies with an initial dose of beneficial microbes.

3. It's good for kids to have a dog because the pooch brings outdoor microbes into the home. Being exposed to a larger variety of microorganisms reduces the likelihood of getting allergies.

4. The author, Ed Yong, really likes the Hawaiian bobtail squid, which contains large colonies of luminous bacteria. Whenever Yong mentions this critter he calls it 'adorable.' (ha ha ha)

This tome covers a fascinating array of topics in an understandable - and sometimes humorous - fashion. I love this book and would recommend it to everyone. Seriously!

Rating: 5 stars

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