I am generally more fascinated by books about physics than biology, but Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Is and a Grander View of Life sounded intriguing, so I decided to give it a shot. It lived up to my expectations and beyond. I also think I have found the perfect insult inside its pages. There’s a critter called Osedax mucofloris, the gutless bone-eating snot-flower worm that feasts on dead whales that sink to the ocean floor. I am trying to memorize that, take that you gutless, bone-eating snot-flower worm!
I Contain Multitudes takes us into the microbial world and it’s a miraculous world. There were sections that were so astonishing I had to read them again because my mind was so blown I was not certain I read it right. I found myself sharing good parts with my best friend, a college science instructor. I, of course, had to call her about the gutless, bone-eating snot-flower worm.
I was interested in learning more about microbes because I am concerned that we have gone overboard in our mania for ridding ourselves and our environment of bacteria. I learned how painful that can be when I developed c. diff after a hospital stay, the antibiotics I took while recovering from an infection killed off lots of good bacteria in my personal microbiome, making way for the rapid growth of c. diff, an omnipresent jerk that is usually kept in balance by the good bacteria that my antibiotics had just killed off. I was able to recover without the fecal transplant that is discussed toward the end of the book, but the potential for improving our health through rePOOPulation remains intriguing and hopeful.
Learning about microbes involves a bit of unlearning because these critters are amazing. The symbiotic relationships they develop with hosts and with each other can be incredibly complex. Did you know there are worms with no mouths, no stomachs, and no anuses because they don’t eat, they are nourished solely by bacteria through chemosynthesis? Did you know that bacteria can swap genes with each other enabling a kind of hyper-evolution? It’s still evolution as it passes through inheritance, but it’s fast. I could go on forever with the amazing facts and discoveries and research that is going on, but the best thing is for you to just read this book.
I loved I Contain Multitudes. I am impressed with Yong’s ability to explain the science and the research so this lay-reader could easily understand new concepts and where they fit into our understanding of the world. Biology is not my strong suit, I can never remember which is meiosis and which is mitosis. Nonetheless, even though I skipped high school biology, I was able to easily understand the book.
Yong writes with wonder and excitement, and you can feel his enthusiasm on every page. He also writes with humor and wit, from silly puns to bits of gossip and insider stories. He expresses the bemusement and astonishment of scientists who are surprised by the wonderful ingenuity and flexibility of microbes.
This is also an important book. There are solutions here for medicine, which is obvious, but also for things like building for flooding with microbes that combat and prevent mold. A project that is working to fight Dengue Fever could also fight the Zika virus and malaria. Important, informative, and entertaining, what more can you ask?
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Is and a Grander View of Life at Harper Collins Publishers
- Ed Yong Web Site